Wednesday, January 28, 2015

“Black Sea” – Dive! Dive!

As submarine movies go, you could do a lot worse than Black Sea. Phantom (2013) immediately comes to mind as one of the few submarine movies that offers almost no tension and if there’s one thing people see submarine movies for, it’s the tension. Conversely, Black Sea will clench you up so tight you won’t need toilet paper for a week. That’s not to say Black Sea is a particularly good movie, it’s just to say it delivers what people want from it. This is a good time to remind you that the story and characters are the most important parts of a movie for me. Yeah, I enjoy the feeling of the tension as much as the next person, but that doesn’t stop from me noticing plot holes the size of ocean trenches.

(This is also a really good time to warn you about major SPOILERS. Remember, there is no way to discuss the story or characters without actually talking about the movie.)

In Black Sea, Jude Law plays Captain Robinson, a submarine pilot for a deep sea salvage company. The movie opens with Robinson getting laid off from his job (actually, it begins with a bunch of completely unnecessary war footage from World War II because who doesn’t love a montage), then, meeting a couple of co-laid-off friends at a pub. We learn that Robinson is divorced and has a kid he never sees and that the job is the reason she left him. In other words, he’s the textbook clichéd hero from every movie ever made. Anyway, one of the friends tells him that before he was fired, they discovered a sunken German U-Boat from World War II in the Black Sea that they believed was the same boat thought to have sunk with millions of dollars of gold on board. They meet with some mysterious guy (Lewis) who agrees to finance an expedition to retrieve the gold and off they go.

At first glance, the setup for this expedition sounds completely rational. They say it has to be hush-hush because the Russians don’t know about the sub and the Georgians know about it, but don’t know where it is. So, if they want to keep the gold, they can’t be discovered by the Georgians or Russians, thus the need for a submarine – and here is where the story starts to break down. Robinson says they need half the crew to be Russians because the submarine they will use is Russian. Except, why not just find British guys who speak Russian? Even better, why not just find one guy who speaks Russian to interpret the writing in the sub and translate for an all-British crew? They spend several days refitting the sub before they go underwater (and it’s an old World War II Soviet sub because of course they’d keep those just hanging around seventy years later), so they’d definitely have to time to translate and put up sticky notes. And they’d have to have a translator anyway (which they do, named Blackie - seriously) to translate between the Russians and the Brits.

Even if we can accept the completely unnecessary Russian crew members, most of these guys, including the Brits, don’t seem to serve a purpose. Robinson says they have to have at least twelve for a full team – nine to sail the ship and three divers to go into the sunken sub. They specifically pick out a sonar guy and a navigation guy and the rest seem like filler composed of Robinson or Blackie’s buddies. When the friend with the plan mysteriously commits suicide (he was on anti-depressants and supposedly killed himself so family would get the insurance money, even though suicide nullifies insurance policies), Robinson replaces him with some random kid (Tobin) who came to tell him the news and has never been on a submarine let alone crewed one. Riiiiiight. Robinson also picks a guy named Fraser to be their lead diver even though Blackie says the guy is a psychopath. Robinson agrees and picks him anyway because every submarine (and heist) needs a guy who is the wildcard. Last but not least is Daniels (Scoot McNairy), who is there as Lewis’ eyes and ears.

Now that we have met our cardboard cutouts, er, crew, the sub finally gets underway and many days pass by without ever telling us how many, except that to us, it’s the very next scene. So, it’s a little jarring when Fraser is bitching about it not being fair that everyone gets an equal share and the other guys remark that he has been bitching for days. As they finally reach their destination, the writer of the film (Dennis Kelly) plays the wildcard and, wow is it stupid.

Tobin has been assigned to the engine room and when he makes a mistake, the Russian guys start yelling at him. This whole setup really bothered me because Blackie tells the kid the Russian words for less and more (which sound very similar, especially in a loud engine room), rather than telling the Russian mechanic the words less and more (which don’t sound similar). Whatever, logic.

Anyway, Fraser decides to defend the kid by…wait for it…stabbing Blackie in the chest. No fighting, no struggling, just some arguing and, blam!...stab. I guess Fraser really is a psycho. When Blackie falls, he knocks some fuel onto the sparking engine, the engine explodes, and the sub sinks to the bottom of the sea. When Robinson wakes up (he fell into a poll and knocked himself unconscious), he learns that the Russians and Brits have retreated to opposite ends of the sub and are threatening to kill each other, though mostly the Russians just want to kill Fraser. Since the crew is down to ten and their escape plan is to retrieve the driveshaft from the sunken sub to fix their engine, Robinson convinces them all that they still need Fraser. Luckily, the movie tests this theory for us and we don’t have to sit their saying “really?” for the rest of the film.

Remember, Fraser is some sort of superhero-level diver, so the next scene almost certainly will show his true worth. Fraser takes Tobin and another Brit out to find the sub and walks around or awhile. Since there’s a chance the sank on the other side of a ravine from the sub, the film tries to trick us into thinking the worst has happened when Fraser reports back that they found the hill they hoped not to find. Cue ominous music and pouty faces and…wait a minute…Fraser is squinting at the dirt. He’s squinting harder, he’s moving closer, he’s starts wiping at the dirt and….Swastika! German sub is found by what can only be assumed as Fraser’s X-Ray vision. He really is a superhero.

But the party doesn’t last long. I’ll refrain from more details, but know that Fraser is directly responsible for more deaths and every shitty situation the crew finds themselves in and all because he’s really good at walking on sea beds and pointing flashlights underwater.

At this point, you might have noticed two things. (1) I haven’t even mentioned the gold yet and the movie is more than half over and (2) Daniels. When catastrophe strikes, Daniels comes clean that Lewis was an actor hired by the salvaging company to trick Robinson into retrieving the gold, that the company had made a deal with the Georgians, and that they were never going to give the crew any money, opting to have them arrested under maritime law when they returned with the gold. Seriously? Why make up such a convoluted story and hire actors when they could have just offered Robinson and each crew member, say, 100,000 dollars/pounds/rubles to do the job (when they finally retrieve the gold, Robinson estimates its worth at $180 million)? Especially since the Georgians were in on it. Especially since the Russians didn’t even know anything (despite Robinson’s continued warnings about being under the Russian Black Sea Fleet). Especially since they paid for the whole trip anyway. Hello? Paging Dennis Kelly. Anyone out there?

This movie would have been far more plausible (don’t ever forget that suspending disbelief is the most important thing an audience member must do) if they had just used that plot, but made the Russian fleet aware of their intentions. They could have dispensed with the unnecessary Russian crew members, made Fraser sane and actually used his diving skills for something more impressive than underwater tour guide, and simply replaced the catalysts for the catastrophes with something non-stupid. They even could have made Daniels more surreptitious or simply just used him as the catalyst for the catastrophes instead of Fraser. But, that would have required actual reasoning and work in the writing and who needs that.

Like I said earlier, this movie is good for the one thing you want from it – tension. Not many things inspire the kind of tension you get with a bunch of humans riding in an ancient, rusty, steel tube travelling two hundred feet underwater, looking for gold, and praying they aren’t crushed like a beer can by the immense pressure. This movie uses that feeling to manipulate you into caring whether the crew lives or dies (well, some of them maybe) and gives you a thrilling ride while doing it. Of course, you can get the same thing from movies like The Hunt for Red October or Crimson Tide, but your brain won’t hurt after those.

Rating: Ask for half your money back and remember that diving is a little more than walking in the water.

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