Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
Premise: A group of unemployed submariners and divers go looking for a German U-boat stranded on the bottom of the Black Sea and rumored to be filled with gold.
What Works: Black Sea successfully mixes the locations and characters of submarine movies like Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October with heist films such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Heat. That combination is effective with the strengths of each story genre amplifying the qualities of the other. What is unique about submarines and differentiates them from other naval vessels is that the crew can’t see where they are going. Navigation of a submarine is dependent on charts and stop watches assisted by the use of sonar. There’s no other mode of transportation quite like it and the blind steering combined with the cramped quarters tends to make these films claustrophobic. Black Sea does the submarine aspects of its story quite well. The crew carry out their mission in a rickety old boat that clearly should have been scrapped long ago and the interiors have a grimy texture of oil and mechanics. The diving scenes are quite tense and the filmmakers effectively use the darkness of the deep sea. As the situation becomes more difficult the tight interiors and rickety construction of the submarine become increasingly claustrophobic. This puts pressure on the story and enhances the panic and distrust among the crew. As in many heist movies, the group of thieves have assembled based on their skill sets but their allegiance is conditional. Each of them is promised an equal share in the bounty and the more unscrupulous members of the crew realize that the fewer the number of crew members the greater their share becomes. Admirably, this doesn’t play out in an entirely predictable way. Rather than one man or a group of the men attempting to hijack the mission, their mutual suspicions and the projection of their own greed upon their fellow crew members are the cause of the conflict and the script allows some nuance in the way the submariners sabotage themselves. The cast of Black Sea is led by Jude Law as the captain. Law’s character is trying to hold the crew together but he constantly faces new challenges from the men and from the boat and his determination to get the gold borders on madness. He isn’t simply motivated by greed; he’s been laid off of his job, as have most of the crew, and the quest for gold is really about reclaiming his dignity as a working man. Black Sea has an impressive supporting performance by Bobby Schofield as the youngest member of the crew. He has no submarine experience but he has knocked up his girlfriend and sees this job as the score that will allow him to do right by his new family. The backstory of Law and Schofield’s characters gives Black Sea a compelling human motivation that elevates the material beyond an average heist or submarine movie.
What Doesn’t: There is little getting around the fact that the crew of Black Sea are a bit stupid. The crew is split evenly between Russian and English submariners and the two groups of men don’t trust each other. The film does not characterize the supporting players as well as it could and it is unclear why some of the British are distrustful of the Russians. Given that these men are trapped together in a rusty pressurized tube miles beneath the surface of the ocean it behooves them to work together. Mutual self-interest in getting their share of the gold or at least getting back to the surface alive ought to bind them together but before the crew even get to the U-boat the men are already at each other’s throats. The early conflicts of Black Sea are forced and a few of the crew’s later decisions are questionable although their choices become more credible as the situation becomes more difficult.
DVD extras: Featurette, commentary track, trailers.
Bottom Line: Black Sea is a fine deep sea adventure. It’s exciting and the movie has an effective atmosphere of dread. Black Sea was released to theaters early in the year but wasn’t pushed very hard by its distributor. The movie is worth seeking out now that it’s available for home viewing.
Episode: #555 (August 16, 2015)