James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander deal with a long-distance romance 
in Submergence. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films

James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander deal with a long-distance romance in Submergence. Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films

That Underwater Feeling

Wim Wenders fails to return to form in the distant drama ‘Submergence.’

I interviewed director Wim Wenders in the mid-’90s, and a sizable part of the conversation focused on an element of filmmaking he found supremely important: the sense of place. One can’t just parachute in somewhere and shoot a film; you need to know a location and understand it.

Well … hmmm. Wenders’ new film, Submergence, travels to a terrorist encampment in Somalia and a deep-diving submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to Wenders’ explorations of his native Germany in Wings of Desire and The American Friend or his deep drilling of the American landscape in Paris, Texas, this is a tourist’s visit. It might explain why Submergence—though sincere and sometimes woozily affecting—feels like a skim over the surface.

Things begin as two strangers meet in a deluxe French resort. Dani (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander) is a marine scientist, counting the days to her first trip in a deepwater sub, a journey that inspires thoughts about the fragility of life. James (James McAvoy) says he is a British government employee working on global water issues—so they have that in common. When they quiz each other about their favorite bodies of water (flirting couples have been known to do this): she says Atlantic, he says the human body.

Early on, we know there’s more to his story, something to do with dangerous espionage. He’s off to Africa, she’s bound for Iceland, so their romance is brief. The courtship itself is appealing in part because Vikander goes straight to the point of a scene—Dani is not meek, or compliant, or even all that nice. You believe her commitment to science, completely. That’s why, when the second half of the film separates the two, Dani’s shift from focused scientist to worried lover doesn’t ring especially true. The separation does create some haunting connections between Dani and James, because Wenders understands that people in movies can be connected by a simple cut—just as you cut from one person to another when they’re in the same room, you can unite them across continents and oceans with a single edit. At times they’re in as much a mind-meld as Rey and Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi, another recent film that employed the same device. So when one of them recites John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island,” we believe that both people can hear the words, somehow. They are, to borrow the title of another Wenders film, “faraway, so close!”

In this arena, Wenders owes something to the example of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose movies (The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colors trilogy especially) explored mysterious linkages. It feels as if Wenders is sightseeing in Kieslowski’s mystical territory, in fact, as the film’s take on spirituality is just a little undercooked.

Wenders’ films have meandered in recent years, and unfortunately Submergence (based on J.M. Ledgard’s novel) isn’t a definitive return to form. But I did like the Germanic sobriety Wenders applies to the material—you never doubt something is at stake, even if the storytelling pieces don’t always pay off. When Dani and James wander outside and talk of love and death, Wenders foregrounds the sound of the wind whispering through the treetops, and darned if that eerie noise doesn’t resemble the bell tolling for one, or both, of them.

Submergence

Opens April 13 at Grand Illusion Cinema | Not Rated

More in Film

Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, and director Marc Turtletaub put together the pieces on the set of Puzzle. 
Photo by Linda Kallerus/Sony Pictures Classics
Can ‘Puzzle’ Fit in the New Oscars Landscape?

The understated indie boasts a fabulous performance by Kelly Macdonald, but does that matter in the Best Popular Film era?

Teens bond at a gay conversion camp in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Photo courtesy Beachside Films
The Conversion Immersion of ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

A strong young ensemble helps director Desiree Akhavan artfully takedown conversion therapy.

The ostentatious takes center stage in Generation Wealth. Photo by Lauren Greenfield
Show Me the Money

The documentary ‘Generation Wealth’ attempts to show greed’s shallowness, but somewhat loses focus.

Tom Cruise hangs onto his action hero bonafides with ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout.’ Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures/Skydance
Impossibly Not Getting Old

Tom Cruise and his action franchise remain sharp in ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout.’

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill lead a hefty cast in <em></em><em>Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot</em>. Photo by Scott Patrick Green/Amazon Studios
Steady Footing

Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill anchor ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,’ Gus Van Sant’s biopic about a quadriplegic cartoonist.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) stays glued to her screens in ‘Eighth Grade.’ Photo by Linda Kallerus/A24
Embracing the Naturalistic Awkwardness of ‘Eighth Grade’

Writer/director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher discuss making and living one of the year’s best films.

Golden Goal

On the Seventh Day takes an atypical sports movie approach while addressing immigrant issues.

‘The King’ explores the idea of Elvis as a symbol of America. Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories
‘The King’ of the U.S.A.

A new documentary on Elvis Presley tries to make the rock icon the embodiment of America.

Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), live outside of society 
in Leave No Trace. Image courtesy SIFF
Off the Grid

‘Leave No Trace’ weaves a poignant tale about a father running from society and a daughter who yearns for it.

Dino-Might

While peppier than its predecessor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom still feels very calculated.

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘2001’ in 2018

As Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece returns to theaters for its 50th anniversary, have moviegoers betrayed its legacy?

Through their partnership with Dandelion Africa, Extend the Day supplied solar lights to 9,000 children in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Extend the Day
‘Into the Light’ Cuts Through the Darkness

A documentary about local non-profit Extend the Day shows what it’s like for over 1.2 billion people throughout the world who lack electricity.