“Help me! I’ve been submerged and I am not enjoying it!”
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film Lifeboat found several shipwreck survivors adrift at sea, attempting to survive while also believing the person who caused the ship to sink might be among them. With Submerged, director Steven C. Miller takes this basic premise, makes it more silly, and adds a lot more shouting.
Miller’s set-up feels like a failed pilot for one of the many “flashback” shows that saturated TV after Lost became a cultural phenomenon: several people are trapped in a high-tech limo when the vehicle gets knocked off a bridge and sinks to the bottom of river. As the car fills up with water, the people trapped inside struggle to not drown, not run out of air, and try to reach the outside world. While all this is happening, we’re inundated with flashbacks slowly cluing us in as to how everyone got here.
To Submerged’s credit, this set-up mostly works instead of instantly straining plausibility. This is entirely due to Miller’s claustrophobic directing — he establishes the perimeters of the sunken limo with ease, and the tension inherent in such a location comes through loud and clear. The problem with the film, however, lies in whenever Miller leaves the limo to show the events leading up to the crash. The film focuses mostly on Matt (Jonathan Bennett), an army reservist who wants to do right by his younger brother Dylan (Cody Christian). Matt also works as the chauffeur and bodyguard of Jessie (Talulah Riley), at the behest of Jessie’s father (Tim Daly), a wealthy businessman with a lot of enemies. Matt is driving Jessie and a gaggle of her mostly loud, mostly clichéd young friends in the limousine when it’s attacked by kidnappers who want to snatch Jessie.
One can understand why Miller felt the need to keep getting the hell out of the limo and flashing back to the above-ground world, but hey, the limited setting scenario worked fine for Lifeboat, — why change locations at all? The answer is that none of the characters stuck in the limo are very interesting, and they spend the bulk of their time screaming their heads off and accusing each other of first infidelity and later of possibly being in on the attempted-kidnapping that landed them at the bottom of a river. Their hysteria is somewhat understandable — you, too, would probably be freaking out if you found yourself trapped underwater. But it doesn’t make for entertaining viewing.
Bennett, as the somewhat heroic Matt, does the best he can with the material he’s given, and indeed his character remains the most level-headed and relatable as Submerged slogs along. But it’s not enough, and plot-twists and revelations that reveal themselves do little to elevate the material. Submerged director Steven C. Miller has a grasp on how to create a claustrophobic experience with his camera, but the narrative he’s unfolding isn’t doing him any favors. Submerged is all wet.