Monday, April 16, 2018

In Theaters/On VOD: SUBMERGENCE (2018)

(France/Germany/Spain - 2018)

Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Erin Dignam. Cast: James McAvoy, Alicia Vikander, Alexander Siddig, Celyn Jones, Reda Kateb, Jannick Schumann, Jean-Pierre Lorit, Julian Bouanich, Loic Corbery, Hakeemshady Mohamed, Hans Torgard, Jess Liaudin, Abdikjam Abdulllahi Aden. (Unrated, 112 mins)

All careers have ups and downs, but for those with an intense passion for movies, there's few things more depressing than watching a great filmmaker lose their way and fall into a pattern of sustained collapse. Along with trailblazers like Werner Herzog, Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe von Trotta, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders was one of the key figures in the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s. Important Wenders works from that era, like 1974's ALICE IN THE CITIES, 1976's KINGS OF THE ROAD and 1977's THE AMERICAN FRIEND, remain revered by cineastes and studied in film courses to this day. After his 1982 American debut HAMMETT flopped, Wenders returned to Europe and came back strong with 1984's PARIS, TEXAS, which gave Harry Dean Stanton the role of his career, and 1987's WINGS OF DESIRE, his masterpiece and an often breathtaking work of art that found Wenders at the peak of his powers. But over the last 25 years, something's gone wrong. Like Herzog, Wenders found himself more interested in documentaries, and he enjoyed the biggest commercial success of his career with 1999's BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, where he followed guitarist Ry Cooder to Havana to track down and pay tribute to an obscure collective of elderly Cuban musicians. In addition, he also directed several U2 music videos, and he helmed an episode of the PBS documentary series THE BLUES, among other short films and smaller, personal projects.

Throughout this period, following 1991's UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD, Wenders continued exploring non-fiction while his narrative features were proving to be one forgettable disappointment after another: 1993's FARAWAY, SO CLOSE! was a decidedly inferior sequel to WINGS OF DESIRE that nobody liked; 1997's THE END OF VIOLENCE had some interesting moments amidst a generally muddled story involving Hollywood movie producers, government surveillance, and illegal immigrants; 2001's THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL is aggressively unwatchable, co-written by U2's Bono and headlined by Jeremy Davies in possibly the most annoyingly mannered performance in the history of motion pictures. It remains Wenders' worst film by a country mile, one whose cause wasn't helped by co-star Mel Gibson, going for some arthouse cred as a bellowing detective in a back and neck brace, telling an interviewer that it was--and he wasn't wrong--"as boring as a dog's ass;" and 2005's middling DON'T COME KNOCKING reunited Wenders with PARIS, TEXAS writer Sam Shepard but with significantly lesser results. 2005's post-9/11 drama LAND OF PLENTY is really his only consistently good scripted film after 1991. It more fully develops his half-baked surveillance themes from THE END OF VIOLENCE, and it got a big boost from Michelle Williams and a career-best performance by John Diehl, a veteran TV actor (he was Zito on MIAMI VICE) who took the opportunity and ran with it, but it's one of Wenders' least-known and least-seen films. Wenders stays busy and still earns significant accolades when it comes to his documentaries, most notably 2011's PINA, 2014's Oscar-nominated THE SALT OF THE EARTH, and the upcoming POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD. But of his four scripted features over the last decade, two--2008's PALERMO SHOOTING (one of Dennis Hopper's final films) and 2016's THE BEAUTIFUL DAYS OF ARANJUEZ--remain unreleased in the US, while 2015's EVERY THING WILL BE FINE was a stilted, somnambulant Atom Egoyan knockoff with James Franco that was pointlessly shot in 3D, which hardly mattered since it went straight to VOD anyway.

That brings us to Wenders' latest, SUBMERGENCE, which again spotlights the esteemed filmmaker's ongoing inability to function outside of the documentary genre. It's based on a 2011 novel by J.M. Ledgard, but not helping matters is that the screenplay adaptation was entrusted to Erin Dignam, the same writer behind Sean Penn's 2017 embarrassment THE LAST FACE. As in that film, we have a blossoming romance between two driven but lost souls being intruded upon by career dedication, Third World strife, geopolitical concerns, godawful writing, and a director with a message that gets mired in lugubrious self-indulgence. To his credit, Wenders doesn't come close to approaching the smugness of Sean Penn, but make no mistake, this could very easily be titled THE LAST FACE II: SUBMERGENCE. The film chronicles the whirlwind romance between James More (James McAvoy) and Danny Flinders (Alicia Vikander) after they meet at a Normandy bed-and-breakfast resort. He's a Scottish-born MI-6 counterterrorism agent undercover as a water engineer and awaiting instructions for his next assignment in Somalia. She's a biomathematician prepping for a deep sea dive in a high-tech submersible off the coast of Greenland to study the origins of life. They court in vague riddles, usually with clunky nautical references. Lunch dates don't get much hotter than a monotone Danny droning "The ocean has five layers...the first one is epipelagic..." or James making his move when responding to her question "What's your favorite water body?" with a come hither "The human body."

He's eventually sent on his mission and is promptly abducted and held prisoner by Somali jihadists, who attempt to brainwash him into believing in their cause as he all the while insists he's just a water engineer. This leads to a real attention-grabbing conversation with a Somali doctor (Alexander Siddig) about well construction and water filtration systems. Danny, meanwhile, gets ready for her dive but is troubled by James' sudden disappearance and his unanswered texts. She tries to focus on her work, as evidenced by one breathlessly thrilling scene that's almost as riveting as Donald Sutherland's clandestine, 15-minute conspiratorial park bench exposition dump on Kevin Costner in JFK, where Danny's examining some large rock formations near the shore and tells a fellow researcher "If you come closer, they're like tiny trees...this one here is a marriage between a fungus and a cyanobacteria," adding "It dissolves from life into non-life." At this point, Vikander could very well be referring to the pages of Dignam's script.

If SUBMERGENCE has one thing working in its favor, it's that it certainly looks good, thanks to the contributions of regular Gaspar Noe cinematographer Benoit Debie, who's also worked on films as varied as Dario Argento's THE CARD PLAYER, Harmony Korine's SPRING BREAKERS, and Ryan Gosling's LOST RIVER. But for as utterly inert and lethargically lifeless as the dramatic elements are, Wenders would've been better served by making a documentary about either a biomathematician deep-sea diving off the coast of Greenland or a water engineer working with locals to construct a water filtration system in Somalia. Much like what's happened with Terrence Malick's recent string of duds, SUBMERGENCE comes across like Wim Wenders directing a parody of a Wim Wenders film. And like Malick, he's still attracting A-list stars who want to work with him, even though they must realize they aren't quite getting the same guy who made WINGS OF DESIRE. There's still enough cache in his legend that you can't blame McAvoy and Vikander for wanting to say "I was in a Wim Wenders film." At this point, the 72-year-old filmmaker has nothing to prove to anyone. His classic films are eternal and no amount of MILLION DOLLAR HOTELs, EVERY THING WILL BE FINEs, and SUBMERGENCEs will diminish their impact. Sure, it's not a so-bad-it-makes-you-question-your-will-to-live fiasco like THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL, a film that moved at the pace of plate tectonics and was so inconceivably awful that it took four sittings over a two-day period to get through because I could only endure it in 30-minute increments and I refused to let it defeat me. No, SUBMERGENCE is not on that level of bad, but it's a chore to sit through. It's not completely fair to say Wenders has lost his mojo, but this and almost all of his "commercial" features of the last quarter century don't play to his current strengths. Concerns and priorities evolve over a long career, and it's obvious that his passion lies with documentary filmmaking and not with ponderous drivel like SUBMERGENCE.

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