REVIEW | ‘Submergence,’ a love story for the nerd


Imagine this: you have a new boyfriend, like brand spanking new boyfriend, and you knew it was true love the moment you met him. Like, he’s The One. But one day, he just stops texting. Hours, days, weeks pass, until you realize you’ve been waiting for a month already for a reply. Or a call. Nada.


That’s the predicament of Alicia Vikander’s character in romantic-thriller Submergence. (Really? One month? If I were her, I’d only wait for four days. Max.)

Wim Wenders’ latest film Submergence is a love story between a spy and a scientist, based on the 2011 novel by J.M. Ledgard. James More (James McAvoy), an M16 agent, and Dani (Vikander), a bio-mathematician, meet-cute in a historic Norman coastline while staying at a nearby bed-and-breakfast.

The two flirt, with Dani attempting to seduce the new guy by descriptions of ocean water in her low, sensual voice, while Mr. Spy lies about the nature of his work and simply tells her he’s a water engineer off to Nairobi.

The two have something in common: their stay in the quaint pastoral French boutique hotel is merely a stopover before a major, risky mission that could alter the world: Dani, to submerge into the hadalpelagic sea level to gather specimen, while James is secretly going to hunt a terrorist and attempt to stop, or at least, reduce the al-Qaida bombings in Europe.

In just a few days, the two experience whirlwind romance talking about nerdy stuff and reciting poetic lamentations about life while taking long walks in white-chalk cliffs and frolicking in D-Day beaches, captured with sweeping, encompassing lens by cinematographer Benoît Debie. Meanwhile the threat of death in their respective jobs looms ahead. And soon, they are tearfully saying goodbye to one another. But not before saying, “I’m in” this new relationship.

A romantic drama set in the midst of espionage, science, and terrorism is the stuff of romantic nerd dreams, made much more scintillating for its languorous treatment and metaphysics.  Wenders, the prolific German auteur and an established figure in New German Cinema, caters to the arthouse few, and with Submergence, he attempts to be quasi-Hollywood.

It’s a challenging film that requires effort in order to fully get lost in its story.  Because Wenders neither tells or shows. He leaves the audience to be empathetic to the characters. Without its strong lead actors, the film may be an endurance test for its unvaried, mechanical storytelling: simply crosscutting between the past and the present. Dani checking her iPhone, and James getting beaten to a pulp by jihadists in Somalia.

But that’s just the surface. Submerge yourself in the essence of the tale, and there’s a compelling pull to the drama, like an undercurrent. Beneath Wenders’ stagnant execution of Erin Digman’s passive screenplay lies an interesting drama:  true love hijacked by work. But extraordinary work.

Dani is about to descend into Hades, and before she plunges 6000 meters deep in the suboceanic trenches, where, as she had explained to James, that a crack in their yellow submarine can suffocate her, you sense her increasing internal panic from James’ silence. Meanwhile, you mentally tell her not to give up. Because James has a very, very valid reason for not texting.

There’s something overtly dramatic about the concept of two people finding extraordinary love just before a life-and-death mission, and how the few short days of unquestionable love sustains them while separated. Their choice to forge ahead into deadly heroic expedition, setting aside the beginnings of romance, and keeping faith that they will survive and reunite, is undoubtedly romantic. And Wenders applies effective suspense towards the last act, triggering anxiety as you wonder whether the two will live.

Submergence, though, demands from the viewer more compassion, scrutiny, and, reasoning to appreciate its nuanced drama. McAvoy and Vikander have no chemistry– you simply understand the power of their attachment, that their romance is more than just a fling. The film is only recommended if you’re looking to pass the time by submerging yourself in the murky waters of Wenders’ subtle, existential romance.

3 out of 5 stars
June 6, 2018 in Philippine cinemas

This review also appears in today’s issue of The Daily Tribune, in the author’s column “Film Check.”