In a remarkable run that lasted from the mid-1970s until the start of the 1990s, the German director Wim Wenders created a personal cinema of tastes, as intimate as a mixtape and as leisurely as a road trip. The big existential statements (Kings Of The Road, The State Of Things, Paris, Texas, Wings Of Desire) were idiosyncratic journeys through European ennui and Americana, populated by angels and dusty character actors; the follies, like the troubled gumshoe pastiche Hammett, were still worth checking out. But his career has suffered a dramatic case of diminishing returns, to the point that the obvious virtues of the early films have been thrown into doubt by the soporifically gaseous later work. (His movies always were languid and self-indulgent, after all.) For those still rooting for Wenders to make a creative comeback, the pseudophilosophical romance Submergence offers only the faintest form of good news: It’s the best fiction film he’s made in a very long time, and about an order of magnitude better than his last film, the execrable (and still undistributed) The Beautiful Days Of Aranjuez. But it’s still an objectively bad movie, paradoxically ponderous and pointless.
Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy play the central couple, Danielle “Danny” Flinders and James More. She’s a theoretical biologist who specializes in deep-sea life. He’s a spy posing as a water engineer. After meeting at a bed-and-breakfast on the coast of Normandy, the two have a fling that seems based less on mutual physical attraction than on a shared ability to engage in hours of aquatic metaphor, and then part ways—she going off on an oceanographic expedition in the north Atlantic, he on a botched mission to Somalia that lands him in the dungeons of the Islamic State. Adapted by Erin Dignam (the writer of Sean Penn’s godawful, late-Wenders-esque The Last Face) from a novel by J. M. Ledgard, it asks its two attractive leads to give whispery, seductive readings of such surefire come-ons as “The next layer is the mesopelagic” and “You’ve been talking to me now for a long time about the world and whales and the ocean and, Danny, you have barely used the words ‘I’ or ‘me.’” There is also this exchange: “What’s your favorite water body?” “The human body. It’s my favorite body. It’s mainly water.” The same could be said of the script.
The bulk of the film crosscuts between the two as they undergo their individual endurance tests, metaphysically sustained by their love, yada yada yada. Like another recent-ish Wenders film, the deathly boring 3-D drama Every Thing Will Be Fine, Submergence lumbers into dramatic tension only in its last 15 or so minutes (though the ending is gibberish), preferring to float in its metaphor long past the point where what passes for story has started to prune. One might point out here that Wenders’ oceanic imagery is literal but never evocative. It’s limited by his touristic eye for filming locations, which include stopovers in a village of grass-roofed houses in the Faroe Islands and a visit to the toppled World War II bunker previously featured in Agnès Varda’s Faces Places. (There’s also an intelligence briefing in an art museum à la Skyfall, though Wenders, ever the sightseer, directs it as a series of Steadicam shots in an effort to get as many paintings as possible into the scene.)
Which is to say, it’s a passively picturesque movie. Even as Wenders’ grasp of viewer interest and ear for soundtracks has flagged (this one is drenched in trying romantic strings), his taste in first-rate directors of photography has remained a constant. He’s made a repeat collaborator of Benoît Debie, the cinematographer of Spring Breakers and Enter The Void, who, bless his heart, manages to squeeze colored neon tubes into every part of a jihadist stronghold and lights the interior of a submersible like one of those party buses that comes with a stripper pole. The bold purples and greens that draw the contours of the characters’ faces seem like a metaphor for the extent to which actual art can flourish in a misbegotten art film like this one: only at the edges.