Movie Review: Submergence

Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (TOMB RAIDER; THE DANISH GIRL; EX MACHINA) and this week’s poster boy for personal trainers everywhere James McAvoy (ATOMIC BLONDE; the latest X-MEN franchise) come together in acclaimed director Wim Wenders’ (PINA; BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB) latest feature that is being billed as “a love story for the ages”. If you’re wondering what could possibly be bad about that, the answer is plenty, as SUBMERGENCE flounders on a sea of atonal storylines that don’t quite come together. The result is a voyage that isn’t as fantastic as it should be.

In the film, McAvoy plays MI6 operative James More who decides to go to Somalia, against the advice of his handlers, I might add, with the intention of infiltrating a group of jihadis who are behind a series of suicide bombings in Europe. Before he throws himself into the lion’s den, however, More checks himself into a quaint luxury hotel in Normandy for some pre-mission R&R. There, he meets Danielle Flinders (Vikander) who is there for the same reason. She, though, is a biomathematician who is about to head to the ocean floor near Iceland to investigate marine life in the darkest deep. The pair immediately hit it off and they agree to reunite after their respective high-risk adventures end. Once in Somalia, however, More is taken captive and held in a dark room within earshot of the ocean surf. Just as Dani descends into the watery abyss, More’s situation becomes even dire. Throughout his harrowing ordeal, though, he maintains his memories of his time with Dani and what she told him about life existing even in complete darkness.

It may be that SUBMERGENCE was meant to be today’s The English Patient – a romantic epic that’s supposed to sweep us off our feet – but many would argue (myself included) that even that story made for a better book than a movie. I haven’t read J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence but I’m guessing it works better on the page than it does on the screen. After James and Dani go their separate ways, the story bounces back and forth between the two as they go on their missions. Unfortunately, for much of that time, we watch Dani pine and pout as she wonders why she hasn’t heard from James. (She doesn’t know what he really does for a living.) Dani refuses to accept the possibility that maybe, just maybe, James wasn’t that into her and, right before her big deep sea dive, she jumps ship and hangs out on the Faroe Islands for a few days waiting for her colleagues to catch up. In what is very much a team occupation where everyone has a critical role to play in the operation’s success, not to mention that there should be plenty of data from the previous dives to study, no one seems to mind that Dani is more than a little distracted over a man she barely knows. From a cinematic perspective, it’s all rather overdrawn and broody, especially compared to the tense scenes of James’ descent into spy hell. This combination of starkly different tones doesn’t play well, leaving the audience somewhere in the middle where we don’t really care one way or the other what happens to these characters. Adding to the film’s woes is the climax where both Dani and James stare death right in the face. Sadly, neither situation really puts us on the edge of our seats. The screenplay could have benefited from a tweak or two from the writers of TV’s HOMELAND who know something about writing scenes that are electric.

The film is not a total dud, though. Vikander and McAvoy are both a pleasure to watch and they have good chemistry together but, unfortunately, this story is just not very exciting. Not Wenders’ best by a league.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, May 10th at 8:30 am HK time!

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