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Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, The Million Dollar Hotel) pairs up with Oscar winner Alicia Vikander and regular actor James McAvoy in this wannabe epic love affair film. She is Danielle, a marine professor intent on proving that there is bacteria on earth that’s the same as that on Mars. He is James, a soldier turned water engineer who aims to stop terrorism. Their paths collide in Normandy where love (of course!) comes along and throws a spanner in the works.

Look, filmmakers have been trying to modernise Casablanca and its imitators for years. And they’ve been failing for years too. Allied gave it a shot, and came up short of anything resembling romance. Sean Penn’s last directorial effort (The Last Face) forced viewers to question his directorial filmography, what with its suggestion that genocide is ok as long as people fall in love. And now there’s Wim Wenders addition to the ‘lovers during wartime’ genre. 

Now, Submergence never truly aims to be the modern Casablanca, but it certainly does follow the same narrative thrust that its imitators have employed over the years. Y’know the sort – smart girl falls for smart guy, they spend one night together and fall in love, but because of their pesky careers, they’re separated! Woe falls upon Danielle when she can’t make contact with James (because he’s been captured by Somali soldiers! Drats!) – a man who she spent all of one night with – and in turn, she’s willing to throw aside her whole expedition simply to write him an email and say “dude, I miss you, :`(“. 

Which would be fine, if the talents of Vikander and McAvoy weren’t completely wasted by a lifeless script that forgets to imbue any kind of humanity into the mix. It doesn’t help that the time jumping narrative spoils any kind of connection and surprise where the story may go. McAvoy’s James is so poorly written that I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what his role is, or who he was working for. Sure, McAvoy does manage to add a bit of humanity to his character – mostly when he’s being abused and tortured – but outside of that, he’s given little to work with. It’s a testament to his talents that he makes an almost laughable (and genuinely confusing) scene where he sees the ocean after weeks in a dark prison a touching one. 

Further to the conundrum of Submergence is the misguided preachiness of the text. In one scene, James questions Danielle’s belaboured point about people around the world having lost interest in scientific explorations. She asks, why are people not more excited about a direct biological connection with Mars? And he questions in return, why would people be excited about such a thing when there is little care or bother about the Islamic extremists and the war on terror? Wenders directs this scene with vigour and urgency, and then neglects to carry this urgency through to the rest of the film. 

Instead, this political and scientific pontification is relegated to the backseat, with an empty, bland romance taking the reigns and guiding us through rote scenes of Vikander starring aimlessly into the distance. See, we know she’s upset about not getting a text back because she’s running real fast on the treadmill and the music is playing really loud! See, he’s missing her because he’s standing on the spot in his prison, looking aimlessly into the middle distance, and not, y’know, thinking about his possible impending death. A powerful romance needs evidence that there is love and affection, not scenes of one person loudly munching away on a meal, while the other peels an orange and eats silently. Ah! Love!

The evidence continues to pile up that Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire were flukes in Wenders filmography, and not evidence of a genius at work. This can be the only explanation for a film that simply feels devoid of humanity. There’s a focus on water, and yet, this essence that brings life and has the power to take it, can’t keep this tepid, lukewarm affair afloat. 

Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Alicia Vikander, James McAvoy, Alexander Siddig
Writer: Erin Dignam (Based on a novel by J.M. Ledgard)