As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of submarine films because they’re inherently dramatic. But aside from the readily apparent physical dangers, these movies can also carry heavy subtext that’s as inescapable as the underwater vessel. Kevin Macdonald‘s Black Sea provides an exciting spin on the genre as his picture feints at being an enjoyable B-movie about treasure hunters, but instead opens up as a surprising commentary on class warfare, specifically with regards to the desperation of the working class. While these themes easily show on the surface, they’re still surrounded by exciting action and interesting twists and turns where we may not get to know the crew, but we still become immersed in their struggle to survive.
Captain Robinson (Jude Law) has been laid off by his employer, a shipping conglomerate, after years of service that cost him his marriage and now his dignity. Poor and feeling estranged from his ex-wife (Jodie Whitaker) and their son, Robinson agrees to lead a clandestine submarine mission to recover lost Nazi gold. Working on an old, Russian sub purchased by a mysterious, wealthy benefactor, Robinson’s crew consists of old friends but also Russians who understand the ship’s controls. While Robinson insists on giving each man an equal share, the benefactor’s skittish representative Daniels (Scoot McNairy) notes that the men will turn on each other as they realize fewer survivors means more individual profit. As tensions escalate between the British and Russian crewmembers, they’re faced with increasingly hazardous situations from inside and outside the submarine.
When Robinson puts together his crew, he discovers he’s down a sailor, and decides to recruit Tobin (Bobby Schofeld), a young man he just met and who’s never been on a sub. While we can accept the B-movie premise of a ragtag crew going to discover lost Nazi gold, we have to believe they’re at least qualified to do so. While most audience members won’t be submarine experts, we can all safely assume that the duties on a derelict Russian sub may be a little too difficult for a newbie. Despite Schofeld’s solid performance, Tobin is a function—he is the audience surrogate and Robinson’s conscience as the old captain’s desire to finish the mission puts the entire enterprise at risk.
The other crew members are largely indistinguishable except for a couple minor traits. Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) is described as a psychopath, but he’s a great diver. Daniels is the sleazy businessman. Reynolds (Michael Smiley) is the doomsayer. And the Russians are a homogenous group, so rather than balancing the scales of who will betray whom, we mostly share the perspective of the British crewmembers. The tension between the two groups provides some nice drama, but their conflict is low stakes compared to where the movie is really heading.
The real battle in Black Sea is class warfare. These men—both British and Russian—feel betrayed by a system that no longer has use for the working class, and now they’ve been forced into desperate circumstances where they’ll put their lives on the line for the possibility of sunken treasure. A middle-class person may be bemused by the sense of adventure, but they wouldn’t want to go down there—Daniels certainly doesn’t. He’s comfortable above the sea because he’s happy to collect from the hard labor of others. And while he’s a sniveling worm, the film also gives him credit for his insight into how wealth affects people.
Robinson lives by an old code, and it’s one that’s seemingly fair—each man gets an equal share, and this share could possibly be hundreds of thousands of dollars for each sailor. But Daniels understands that a flat fee should have been offered because greed is more powerful than fairness. If going underwater in an old, metal tube for the possibility of Nazi gold seems like madness, then there’s a new level of insanity when it comes to eliminating other crew members and further endangering the mission to get a larger cut of a reward they won’t be able to spend if they’re dead.
But those are the dire circumstances of the poor, and while they can’t spend their money if they’re dead, they also can’t live if there’s nothing to spend. Black Sea gets more thrilling as it goes on as the crew faces more life-threatening situations, but we’re always aware of the thematic core regarding the desperation caused by wealth disparity. These aren’t sensible men driven mad by treasure. These are hungry men driven crazier by the mere possibility of treasure. They’re risking their lives for a lottery ticket that might pay off.
We don’t need to go in a submarine to see that kind of situation. It’s well above ground, and we would rather choose to ignore it because it makes us sad to see a loyal employee thrown away like garbage. But cram us into the pressure cooker of a submarine, and we can’t escape. “Outside, it’s just cold, dark death,” Reynolds tells Tobin. He’s not just talking about the sea.