An old tried-and-true rule that carries over from the days of VHS rental stores is that if you come across a movie that you have never heard of, but the movie features actors that you have heard of, then that movie is bad. Of course, inevitably, there are exceptions to that rule. Submergence, which stars Split‘s James McAvoy and Tomb Raider‘s Alicia Vikander, is not one of those exceptions.
Submergence is directed by the always-working Wim Wenders, who once made transcendent fictions like Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, but can only seem to focus his storytelling energy now when he makes documentaries (Salt of the Earth, Pina).
There are a number of taut and gripping scenes throughout Submergence, which is kind of a thriller and kind of a love story, but those scenes seem disconnected from each other. And not just because our two leads spend the second half of the film separated.
McAvoy is a Scottish spy who meets biomathematician Vikander at a charming seaside hotel, just before they both must embark on potentially world-saving missions. McAvoy is going undercover to infiltrate Islamic jihad fighters in Somalia, in the hope of ending a series of European bombings. Vikander is seeking signs of life and resources in the dark, unexplored depths of the ocean, through the use of a submersible vessel.
They’re pretty, they’re passionate, and they quickly fall in love. The first half of the film, which recounts their whirlwind courtship in flashback, is the most likable section of the film. In fact, browsing through some other reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems like many viewers basically give up on the film once the flashback ends.
But for this reviewer, James McAvoy’s excellent, committed performance made me stick through to the bitter end, even as the film’s diverging storylines become steadily less promising. Once McAvoy’s character makes it to Somalia, the jihad fighters immediately ID him as a spy and capture him. McAvoy is tortured and worn down. The hope is to convert him to the Jihad and use McAvoy for video propaganda. McAvoy refuses to submit, partially because he has visions of Vikander’s biomathematician to keep him relatively sane.
Meanwhile, Vikander underwhelms, despite her excellence in other films. This is largely due to the actor’s choice to give her character a flat, monotonous affect. One presumes she is trying to play up her character’s withdrawn seriousness, but the end result is a character who is downright boring. And considering that her character spends the vast majority of her screen time upset that McAvoy hasn’t returned her text message — ya know, considering he’s been in captivity and all — her portion of the film veers headlong into self-parody.
One can find the scaffolding of a decent love story/political thriller hybrid here, but the film overreaches in the hopes of achieving profundity. The ambition is praiseworthy, but the lack of follow-through just sinks it.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.