Having spent over ten years captaining submarines, Robinson (Jude Law) is given the boot by his company. When he learns that there is a derelict submarine hidden in the Black Sea, filled with Russian gold, Robinson gathers a team together to retrieve the $40 million loot. It’s not spoiling anything to say that things go horribly wrong.
While I try not to go to the cinema expecting greatness, or get caught up in all the hype, with Black Sea (directed by Touching the Void’s Kevin MacDonald), I was ready for two hours of chair-grabbing tension. While MacDonald’s latest is entertaining enough, with some impressively shot set pieces and a cast who all do good work, it is virtually one predictable scene after another.
Dennis Kelly, one of the chief writers on Channel 4’s Utopia, gives you plenty of signposts or flashing lights during a scene, so that you know what’s coming. When Robinson gives us a roundup of his crew, one of them is introduced as a “psychopath” (Ben Mendelsohn who, in fairness, gives us a credible maniac instead of clichéd beady eyes and an evil grin). You don’t win anything for guessing that all the trouble starts because of this unhinged member of the team.
Slowly, the crew members are killed off, either through accidents or greed-fuelled murder. Unless you don’t watch films all that often, you can’t fail to notice a trend with the casualties: the least useful – or thinly written – characters are bumped off first. A scene which is supposed to be shuffle-around-in-your-seat tense is ruined because you know that a character is about to die.
What saves Black Sea is that, rather than being a nerve-wracking ride, it is heart-breaking to watch the cast succumb to greed, their desperate situation getting even worse. It’s all appallingly believable. Robinson and his crew have given their lives to their jobs. The submarine is their life, outside of it they have nothing, and yet the multi-million pound companies they used to work for don’t value them, just see them as another wage, leaving them with no money, taking demeaning jobs just to feed themselves. When Robinson tells everyone that they will get an equal share of $40 million, you can understand when you see them conjuring up all sorts of plans.
Jude Law gives a complex, career highlight performance as Robinson. To begin with, Robinson plans the voyage in the hope that becoming a millionaire will bring him his family back; screwing over the bureaucrats and money makers firmly in second place. Yet as things go from bad, to worse, to dire for the survivors, his priorities change, obsessed with getting the reward he has earned, giving his ex-employers the finger, and risking his crew’s lives to do it.
Scoot McNairy (Argo, Gone Girl) plays a slimy Personal Assistant and, as the film goes on, manages to make you sympathise with him. As Daniels, he is on the submarine to ensure his boss, the investor, is getting his money’s worth and that things run smoothly. Daniels mocks the crew members for ending up working as paper boys or serving fast food; his only worry is the numbers. In the third act, Daniels stops caring about money and just wants to live. While he plots and backstabs to ensure he’s one of the last men standing, Daniels is absolutely right when he points out that Robinson is only thinking about the gold, not the lives of those around him; exactly what Daniels was doing early on.
Once everyone is underwater, cinematographer Christopher Ross (Eden Lake, BBC’s United and Blackout) turns the visuals up a notch. There’s something bleak and beautiful about Black Sea’s submarine. Placing the camera in numerous cramped spaces and using dim lighting, Ross makes the tarnished interiors, filled with pipes, gauges and creaking machinery, another member of this double-crossing crew; everyone’s home for the next several days is working against them, ending up as their tomb.
MacDonald’s new film could have been just as agonisingly tense as Yann Demange’s ’71, but is held back by a seen-it-all-before script (there’s even one scene that dares to use the old “drowned body suddenly springs out” trick). Everyone does their best here, but with no surprises, nothing to make you question what’s about to happen, Black Sea is a harmless way to get rid of a couple of hours instead of being a full-on assault on your nerves.
3 out of 5