Review: Submergence

3 years ago
Aidan Johnson

Submergence is a romantic thriller directed by Wim Wenders starring Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy. Leading up to viewing this film, I wondered why I hadn’t heard about it, especially with such star power from its two leads. However, as I watched the film, this initial question was replaced by my wondering why this film actually exists at all – a question which lingered with me through the entirety of the film and into the hours which followed.

McAvoy and Vikander, probably wondering the same thing.

The film itself follows a fleeting romance between its two central characters, a bio-mathematician named Danny (Vikander) and James (McAvoy), a member of the British Secret Service. The two conveniently meet at a Normandy hotel during their respective vacations, circumstantially resulting in the two falling for each other. The two actors clearly have excellent chemistry (a cinematic element which must be commented on in any remotely romantic film) which is quite lovely to watch. In fact, some of the better filmmaking techniques are demonstrated within this part of the film, with cinematography which engages with the beautiful landscape which the two lovebirds bond over. The score by Fernando Velasquez is particularly poignant and enhances the growing affection between Danny and James. However, although the marketing of this film would have you believe that this romance is the central theme of this movie, sadly it only takes up about twenty per cent of the film’s runtime.

After the couple part ways, Danny prepares for an important submarine dive whilst James is kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Somalia (as happens if you’re a British Secret Service agent, I guess). The remainder of the film consists of James being horrifically and repeatedly tortured by Islamic extremists as Danny does science experiments and feels like her new BF is ghosting her (but is actually being tortured ad nauseam). In fact, the major point-of-view clearly communicates a condemnation of Islamic extremism (as well as elements of the religion itself) through problematic representations of Muslim men doing very bad things. This is imagery entirely emblematic of modern Western representations of Islam, seen entirely through the eyes of (white dude) James. His fears are validated by his experiences as he sees women stoned to death and children indoctrinated into extremism – a character trajectory which didn’t sit very well with me as an audience member as I longed for his views to be challenged. Whilst it was clear that the intention of the filmmaker was to juxtapose imagery of tender romance with horrific violence, the small segment of the couple together felt like an entirely different film – or an ad break.

I would not have sad through this film if it weren’t for the present of its lead actress. I’m just going to take a small moment to gush a little bit: Alicia Vikander is really wonderful and entirely underutilised in every film that isn’t Ex Machina. Following her Oscar win, she has clearly faced a small slump in terms of roles which can match her magnetism, and this film will sadly fall into said slump. Although this film positions her as one of the lead characters, she has an extremely limited emotional trajectory and gives her very little to do. She really is magical on-camera, however (gush over).

I also realised about two-thirds of the way through the film that there was only one female character in the entire film, a fact which made me audibly gasp. I think the filmmaker wanted to show the strife of women in the workplace, but I found it hard to believe that the marine biology/physics industry is entirely devoid of females.

I had absolutely no expectations going into Submergence. But, somehow during that mushy romance sequence my expectations were elevated slightly only to be trounced by unnecessary messages of Islamophobia and Danny having no female friends to talk to when her new bae isn’t calling back. Where’s Judy Greer when you need her? Good grief.

As to why this movie exists? I still don’t have any answers but I think I’d be less unhappy if I’d have watched it on Netflix and fallen asleep after the romance portion of the narrative. Because that is what this film is for: to be buried in the Netflix graveyard. (Editor’s note: it was based on a book. Maybe something was lost in the adaptation?)


Submergence is in cinemas now.

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