Synopsis – In a room with no windows on the eastern coast of Africa, a Scotsman, James More, is held captive by jihadist fighters. Thousands of miles away in the Greenland Sea, Danielle Flinders prepares to dive in a submersible to the ocean floor. In their confines they are drawn back to the Christmas of the previous year, where a chance encounter on a beach in France led to an intense and enduring romance.
My Take – For decades, German filmmaker, playwright, author, photographer Ernst Wilhelm “Wim” Wenders has been a major figure in New German Cinema, especially considering his remarkable run that lasted from the mid-1970s to the start of the 1990s, where he ended up tackling a number of genres hereby creating a personal cinema of tastes for many cinephiles. But his career has suffered a dramatic case of diminishing returns, to the point that the obvious virtues of the early films have been thrown into doubt by his surprising underwhelming later work, however, for those who are still holding out hope that he may have just another great film in him, they are going to be severely disappointed by this one too.
Personally, I have never seen any of his previous works, yet despite his considerably bad reputation now, the combination of his legacy along with Academy Award-winner Alicia Vikander, and the always reliable James McAvoy in a film about heartache and intrigue, seemed like a good idea, yet despite divulging into topical themes like climate change and terrorism, all while attempting to execute a Bond-esque thriller mixed with a star-crossed lovers narrative, the film ends up being nothing but paradoxically ponderous and pointless.
Based on a book by author J.M. Ledgard, I can only imagine the source material worked better as a novel, because the screenplay by Erin Dignam (who also penned Sean Penn’s directorial disaster The Last Face) is certainly slow, boring and dull and the two story lines never hold together which is unfortunate as the film beautiful to look at, largely thanks to McAvoy and Vikander’s unquestionable star power. Yet despite the look the film lacks depth from the start.
The story follows Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander), a theoretical biologist who specializes in deep-sea life and James More (James McAvoy), a British spy posing as a water engineer. After meeting at a bed-and-breakfast on the coast of Normandy, the two quickly fall in love, and form a connection so passionate, that despite only spending a few days together, and big career-changing gigs ahead of them in opposite parts of the world, which includes Danielle going off on an oceanographic expedition in the bleakest depths of the Greenland Sea to gather specimens in a submersible and James being shipped off to Somalia on a reconnaissance mission, they fall hopelessly in love and promise to stay connected.
As Danielle heads to the literal bottom of the ocean, to continue her groundbreaking research, she finds herself distracted with her memories of James, and spends most of her time wistfully looks at her smart phone, staring at the messages she’s sent to her beloved that have gone unanswered. James, however, has a good reason for being MIA, as upon reaching Somalia, he winded up getting captured and tossed into a dark unhygienic cell.
Spreading out across for 112 minutes, the story bounces back and forth between Danielle and James, as they undergo their individual endurance tests, metaphysically sustained by their love. Theoretically, it should all make for something compelling given the stars and director, but the film plods along its relaxed pace without ever fully gripping its audience. Most importantly it’s difficult to ignore the wild imbalance to their respective situations. In the sense, Danielle is mostly just kind of sad, and is left pining for a man that she hardly knows, buying his cover story that he’s a water engineer, and wondering why he hasn’t been replying back and is enraged by memories of their brief but intense romance just months previous.
As for James, he doesn’t have much time to think about his brief fling in the rustic France countryside, with his life in danger almost every minute of the day, and those same memories comfort him as he repeats Danielle’s name in the hope that he can bridge the space between them across the world. The editing technique makes sense but does not achieve the profoundness that director Wenders aimed to achieve, while the climatic conclusion takes on almost Shakespearian proportions as one wonders if there will be an earthly reunion between the two leads.
Somewhere in the middle of this dull and preposterous tale, he also tries to find parallels in the underdeveloped thematic threads about environmentalism, the future of the planet, and fundamentalist terrorism, like Danielle has a theory that there are micro-organisms on the deepest ocean floor that hold the key to all life on earth and potentially elsewhere, while the two-dimensional jihadists torturing James and trying to convert him to Islam with the barest of religious exposition, all before attempting to tie them together into a love story that never for one moment felt authentic.
It never makes sense her obsession with James considering their brief dalliance, especially in light of the major breakthrough she’s about to make in her life’s true passion. Visualized in somber tones throughout, Danielle is supposedly submerged by the emotional void left by James’s absence as much as she is the inkiness of the ocean’s depths. In every sense, the silent despair she feels inside her submersible is nothing like the actual torment James is facing. Sure, you may even find yourself drawn in by the first half of the film as director Wenders finds many opportunities to accent the enchanting sounds and textures of James and Danielle’s honeymoon-period romance, like the muffled clinking of their wine glasses or the soft creaking of their hotel’s hardwood floors, but the film gradually lost its steam.
Both Vikander and McAvoy do what they can with the material, and do spark some energy in their scenes together, but everything is so underwritten that even their commitment isn’t enough to elevate it off the page, as director Wenders work behind the camera is hardly worthy of remark, and the filmmaker leans heavily on the loud, overwrought score by Fernando Velazquez to attempt to do the dramatic heavy lifting, while earnestly aiming to land with the weight of the story without significant to cling on to. The film lumbers into dramatic tension only in its last 15 or so minutes all before the concealed ending, where sub faces a sudden power shortage, while James dives into the ocean in order to save himself from an American airstrike, but instead of acknowledging that he may be the only survivor, since he was quite far away from the target area, we just see him floating in the ocean face down, while Danielle too may or may not have drowned, all just to comply with the film’s title.
While director Wenders does his best to reinvigorate whatever credibility he could rescue with pristine scenery and symmetrical close ups of the gorgeous Vikander, which provide an uncannily realistic POV that seemingly allows her to stare right through the flesh into your soul. Essentially, it’s the only time you’ll actually feel something, as still, camera angles and picturesque landscapes can’t resuscitate something that never had a pulse to begin with. While it is true, that the performances is probably the only factor which you may take a liking to here, yet the lack of any meaningful dialogue and the overall cliché portrait has no doubt let an opportunity of an actually compelling love story between two skilled performers go to waste.
While the on-screen chemistry between Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy is endearing, mainly as they both are also connected through Michael Fassbender, with McAvoy‘s being his X-Men co-star/good friend and Vikander being his wife, director Wenders is unable to capture much chemistry when they’re together or suspense when they’re apart. Alexander Siddig is also alright in his small role. On the whole, ‘Submergence’ is a strangely literal romantic drama that despite the presence of two attractive stars ends up being nothing but pretentious, boring, and pointless.
Directed – Wim Wenders
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 112 minutes