“The Black Sea” flounders despite its best attempts

by Andrew Kingsley | 4/19/15 6:01pm

Sequester a group of actors in a small space, point your camera at them and wait an hour. By then, each of them will surely have gone insane. It’s the theory behind Sartre’s “No Exit” (1944) of being locked together in a room for eternity. Claustrophobia is a truly cinematic fear. It requires no sets and no props — it is just the actor’s psyche slowly consuming itself. “The Shining” (1980) should come to mind. Even viewers cramped into small theater seats can relate to its stifling intensity. “The Black Sea” (2014) stuffs 12 men into a dilapidated submarine searching for gold and watches the pot boil. Beyond a couple flare-ups, though, the film can only manage a simmer.

Jude Law stars as Robinson , the irascible captain of a motley dozen, the crew half-Russian and half-English, who race to find a sunken Nazi treasure worth millions at the bottom of the Black Sea. Like a Cold War microcosm, the crew quickly divides themselves along country lines, which breeches the hulls of their sanity and drowns them in paranoia. Like socialists, they agree to divide the sum evenly, so there is incentive to “dump the ballast” men. What follows is somewhere between “The Hunger Games”(2012) and “Titanic”(1997).

Murphy’s Law holds court here, as the submarine snowballs toward self-destruction with Rube Goldberg-esque sequences of small human follies adding up to cataclysmic deaths. Stabbings, drownings and explosions soon turn the ship into a rusted, floating tomb. This domino effect, however, plays out more as the inevitabilities of a director pulling his puppets to the sea floor, tallying his body count. As in “Final Destination” (2000), death loses its shock factor. Rather, we are always waiting at the door, looking down at our watches for its arrival. It is never a matter of who will die, but when and how.

Lacking psychotic ferocity, the gravity of true fear sucking men into a mental abyss is never felt. A bunch of Hamlets and Prufrocks, the crew whirlpools in self-doubt, craving revenge but too cowardly to follow through. Their decisions and revisions slow the tempo to a couple knots at times, floundering in impotence. Only Fraser, a wizened diver, has the cruel engines to drive a knife through a comrade’s heart. Robinson gives too many humanist speeches about not stooping to the level of the bankers that put them in this mess. It’s like attending a gladiator contest where the fighters shake hands to spite their slaveholders, until one man, whipped and scorned beyond repair, initiates a bloodbath out of fury. “The Black Sea” becomes more of a spy thriller than action-packed adrenaline pumper, with two moles slowly ravaging both Russian and English crews alike.

Luckily, Robinson is monomaniacal enough to keep the film buoyant, like Ahab drawing his crew to annihilation for his own personal vendettas. Fueled by the loss of his previous submarine job, Robinson uses this expedition as revenge on his former employers. He is also handed a trite failed-father subplot and uses a young crewmember as a son surrogate. Yet the numbing optimism of greed that gilds treachery and outweighs sanity consumes Robinson, transforming him into a Robinson Crusoe-type, victimized by his own psychological cannibalism. This film could easily be retitled “There Will Be Blood 2: Underwater Gold,” as the vestiges of Robinson’s humanity are submerged by psychotic avarice, just as Daniel Plainview’s were by his pursuit for black gold.

The ending comes as no surprise, as if all submarines by their own ontology in cinema must end on the sea floor. They are built to sink, and sink they shall. Ultimately, the film seems like a tepid revitalization of the submarine thriller genre such as “Hunt for Red October” (1990) and “Das Boot” (1981) with crisper images and more explosive action. Despite this, it only breaks the surface of the intensity of claustrophobic thrillers like “Alien” (1979) or “Panic Room” (2002), itself hiding from the potency of decisive filmmaking.

Rating: 6/10

“The Black Sea” played at the Hop Saturday night at 7 p.m.