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‘Submersible’ Review: Grimy, Predictable Submarine Thriller

There are lost-at-sea thrillers that make a virtue of the leanness of their narratives. J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” Wolfgang Fischer’s “Styx” and Chris Kentis’ legitimately traumatizing “Open Water” (not to mention Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” if we switch in space for ocean) all spun gripping tales of survival — or not — using minimal dialogue and very little character backstory. But the pitfalls of this less-is-more approach are laid bare in Alfredo León León’s “Submersible,” the Ecuadorian international Oscar hopeful, which musters adequate tension from its setting on a leaky narco-submarine, but too often resorts to generic plot beats and stereotypes. In its familiarity, “Submersible” at least appropriately evokes such a sinking feeling.

We’re engulfed in the action immediately, when the film opens, as the rickety, makeshift sub codenamed “Guadalupe” is already mid-crisis. Its crew of three — secretive pseudo-captain Felix (Leynar Gómez), quiet, older engine maintenance guy Kleber (Carlos Valencia) and jittery, crazy-eyed wild card Aquiles (José Restrepo) — scrabble about the squalid, listing interior and decide in desperation to redistribute the weight on board by shifting their precious cargo around.

The problem here is that the men have been ordered not to go into the sealed cargo bay by the ruthless traffickers who have coerced them into this grim voyage; when they do, they discover in among the plastic-wrapped, cinder-block-size bricks of drugs the bodies of two bound and gagged young women. At least, they think both are dead, until one of them, Angie (Natalia Reyes), takes a gasping breath, and suddenly they’re three men on a boat with a hostage. Further misfortunes befall them: They’re out of touch with the guide ship, they’re running low on fuel and food, a storm hits and, well, they all more or less hate each other.

There’s a late-breaking attempt to introduce some notes of humanity when Kleber, whom we’ve already seen gazing at a picture of his own young daughter, takes pity on Angie. But we’re too far gone by then to be able to invest in characters who have displayed as little interest in each other as the screenplay (co-written by León and Daniela Granja Nuñez) has in them. It’s hard to become too attached to people whose only real reaction to the fate of the poor dead girl, for example, is to become increasingly irritated by the stench of her rotting corpse.

Even Angie, the innocent among them, doesn’t fare much better, merely there, it seems, to introduce the threat of sexual violence into this powder keg of masculine power-play, and to provide the brisk, predictable story with an avenue for eleventh-hour redemption.

“Submersible” is best approached, perhaps, as a technical exercise in the manufacture of claustrophobia and the kind of tension that comes purely from the situation of being in the middle of — and sometimes beneath — an ocean, with limited resources, in a barely seaworthy vessel. On that level, it has its successes, particularly in DP Daniel Avilés inventive, tight-space camerawork and fittingly gloomy lighting, which often comes from just one sickly yellow bulkhead lamp. The fetid atmosphere of grime and damp, of lank hair and sweat-slicked skin, is palpable amid the carefully dismal production design, though it is strange that despite the close confines of this rust bucket, it’s never very clear what the layout of the sub is, nor where any of its crew members are in relation to one another.

“Getting in here is easy, but getting out is fucking hard,” says Aquiles at one point, referring to the predicament of the middleman becoming ever more entangled in a cartel’s merciless net. Thankfully, “Submersible” makes a far more efficient exit: With a trio of editors (León along with Sebastián Cordero and Iván Mora Manzano) slicing the whole thing down to a pacy 80 minutes, it doesn’t take longer than necessary to say what little it has on its mind. Still, it can’t help feeling like a squandered opportunity for a more original and involving movie, one that takes its politics more seriously or that likes it characters more, or one that has something to say about the nature of confinement — a subject in which we’ve all become rather expert recently. Instead, what thrills there are in “Submersible” are mostly mechanical, and its dynamism is that of a compass needle spinning wildly without ever finding a point.

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