Black Sea Review
Aiming for The Abyss meets The Descent, but falling slightly short, Kevin McDonald takes his talents at claustrophobic horror and applies them to this limited budget Jude Law-captained submarine heist thriller.After losing most of his years – and his marriage along the way – to the sea, redundancy sets a bitter submariner off in search of hidden treasure. He’s heard about a pot of Nazi gold buried in an old sub at the bottom of the ocean, part of a shipment that was being transported from Russia during the Second World War, and he leaps at the chance to make the fortune that he thinks that the system has robbed him of. Assembling a motley crew – who are matched by some Russian counterparts – his team take to the depths in a creaky old Russian sub, and soon find that, between the language barriers, greed, and in-fighting, and the inherent problems with taking such a broken down wreck to such depths, the problem may not just be getting to the gold, but actually getting back to the surface alive.There’s plenty to enjoy in this relatively low budget underwater outing, filmed in a disused old sub, and afforded the same claustrophobic style and filmwork that McDonald has used to such great effect in many of his previous features. He’s got a good lead in Law – dodgy Scottish accent notwithstanding – and the newly-bulked-up Brit actor (who has been wielding a more evident presence of late, with noteworthy efforts like Dom Hemingway) takes the reins with both hands, providing us a strong central character who is equal parts leader and renegade, desperately trying to hold onto his sanity whilst all those around him lose theirs. The supporting cast are seldom given the time to flesh out their respective roles (partners in crime from Killing Them Softly, Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy stand out), but there’s enough distinction to make for some effective tension-building scenes and simmering imminent disaster.
It may only tangentially remind us of The Abyss through its claustrophobic setting and paranoia-fuelled tensions, but at least McDonald’s latest is more The Descent than it is Doomsday.
Whilst the tension is admirably well-maintained – and the limited claustrophobic setting used to its best effect – Black Sea never quite builds to a satisfying third act, often stretching plausibility even notwithstanding your desire to simply go with it, and struggling to make good on the promising premise and solid first half. Eventually it does all come together, but a little more character development and a little less in the random twist department, and this could have been a far more impressive indie thriller.
Still, sub thrillers are a relatively rare commodity these days (space is much more in fashion) – and good sub thrillers even rarer (this only makes me more desperate for an HD release of The Abyss) – so we have to give credit to McDonald’s ability to deliver an effort in this sub-genre which is pretty consistently thrilling and thus pretty reliably effective. At its best, you get to enjoy that same Descent-esque vibe as the increasingly desperate crew (here all-male, juxtaposed with The Descent's all-female cast), trapped below the surface, try to innovate their way out of a succession of disasters, all the while having to second-guess one another as to the true motivations behind each others’ actions. McDonald’s got a keen eye for observing the primal self-preservation gene within his characters, which kicks in when put in exceptional circumstances of extreme danger, and it’s nice to see him back playing in the field that he does best in.
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