Character intelligence is a game of luck when it comes to big budget films. You either get it or you don’t.
Before beginning this review, I pulled up some reviews of The Hunt For Red October (1990), another film whose primary setting was the dark, closed-in space of a submarine, and whose poster no doubt inspired this one. As seems usual with my choice of reference, I narrowed in on Roger Ebert’s article and came away with this observation: “The movies have one sure way of involving us that never fails. They give us a character who is right when everybody else is wrong and then invite us to share his frustration as he tries to talk some sense into the blockheads”. But what happens when everyone in the movie is a blockhead, and no one is ever right?
This is the wall I ran into while watching Kevin Macdonald’s Black Sea, a movie in which the stupidity of all its characters spells their doom and creates the story. Had a single sailor in this movie stopped and considered his actions, even for a second, the plot would have halted and the movie come to an end.
The story employs the old standby where a group of mismatched individuals band together against their will in search of a singular target, usually treasure.
Black Sea gives us a doozy. We are carefully taught that back in 1941 Hitler made a pact with the then neutral Soviet Union for tonnes of gold bullion in reparation aid. Stalin, for reasons never made clear, accepted Hitler’s request and sent the u-boat carrying the gold. What with the gold being too heavy, or the submarine falling into disrepair, the cargo never made it to the Nazis and now finds itself resting at the bottom of the Black Sea, waiting to be found by disgruntled shipyard workers.
As luck would have it, Black Sea has a steady supply of disgruntled shipyard workers, and willingly spares its most flaccid to work in its screenplay. Consider some of the actions undertaken by Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn), the apparently psychotic but brilliant deep-sea diver. He is at once wary of the Russians on board their rusty old submarine and reminds us of this by constantly fingering an ominous blade, tucked into wherever ominous blades are tucked into. Then he kills one of them with it, which sends the sub into its first of many treacherous nosedives.
This greatly angers the captain of the ragtag crew, Robinson (Jude Law), but apparently not enough for him to do anything about it. Indeed, moments after the murder, he is patting Fraser on the back and exchanging the kind of trusted looks a bearded man would share with his barber. Where’s the angry mob? The trial? The sentence?
The whole concept behind Black Sea is the cooperation between nations in the pursuit of a shared vision. In this movie, that vision is forty million in gold. If Brits and Russians can get along, splendid. If they can’t (they don’t), not so good.
One of the characters, the scheming banker, Daniels (Scoot McNairy), shrewdly points out that huddling twelve grown men in a submarine with forty million on the line is a recipe for genocide. What happens if one realises that one less equals a bigger share? This is a thoroughly prudent question, but everyone on board is so busy being stupid and paranoid and genocidal that Daniels goes unheard. Eventually all sorts of complications arise and the men find themselves trapped on the seabed with the gold slipping away and water rushing through compartments like the best scenes out of Titanic (1997).
Black Sea is nevertheless an efficient, potent movie. It gets the claustrophobia just right. And the acting of everyone involved is of a high, convincing level (even the little 18-year old kid holds his own against Law and Mendelsohn). The actors believe the story they’re in, but the story itself is not so sure. I think smarter, more discerning characters would have elevated the film to a more believable platform. The idea of shovelling twelve navy thugs into a confined space like a submarine is a great one. We just need to know that the thugs actually have brains behind their seafaring skulls.
Best Moment | The first few scenes on board the rusty sub, before everyone started going crazy. I was beginning to enjoy the company of seasoned sub operators working together for a common cause. But then…
Worst Moment | The self-sacrifical ending, with its overt symbolism and promise of redemption. It’s also cliched.