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Saturday, April 20, 2024

My Year Watching Submarine Movies

On the second night my husband’s temperature hovered around 103, I watched Titanic. Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater met, fell in love, and scrambled for their lives aboard the doomed ship. Titanic was a last resort. Several of my reliable comfort rituals, including a YouTube yoga class and a bath, had already proved inadequate. I felt an unshakable, clackety panic, like we were getting cranked up an old wooden rollercoaster with no way to stop the ride from plummeting into a black hole. I wasn’t alone in feeling rattled and afraid. It was mid-March in New York, and the city was realizing that the coronavirus was not just present but that it was everywhere. Nurses were already begging for PPE. Streets sat empty. We videoconferenced with a kind doctor from Mount Sinai who told me to monitor Charlie’s breathing, to look for a pulse oximeter online, and to hang in there. She looked tired. Asanas and epsom salts had lost their calming powers.

But Titanic worked. By the time Jack disappeared under the frigid Atlantic as a gorgeous icicle corpse, I’d relaxed enough to be annoyed about Rose hogging the door. Caring about something so silly felt good. And our own crisis seemed manageable in comparison to Jack and Rose’s ordeal. Yes, Charlie was sicker than he’d ever been before, and yes, he was exhibiting most of the known symptoms of Covid-19. But at least he was not in peril on the sea! By the time the old lady dropped it into the ocean in the end, I was asleep.


James Cameron’s masterpiece had one major flaw. It was a measly three hours and 30 minutes long. More nights on the couch needed filling, especially as Charlie’s illness lingered. He’d started feeling bad the night before New York went on “pause.” In the weeks that followed, he barely left the bedroom, soaking the sheets with sweat, too weak to eat. By the time he recovered in April, the world had changed. In between, he lost 25 pounds and his sense of smell, and I’d grown obsessed with stories of nautical misadventure.

After Titanic, looking around for more danger-at-sea narratives, I finally read the copy of Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania that’d been languishing in the corner of our bookshelf dedicated to books enticing enough to buy but not to actually read. The best bits of Larson’s book weren’t about the Lusitania or its passengers, but about the U-20, the submarine that torpedoed the ship. Talk about cursed. The descriptions of the German naval forces’ cramped, damp underwater existence sounded claustrophobic and grim. They lived on top of one another, stuck, isolated, and in constant fear of death. That part reminded me of the lonely circumstances in our apartment, but they had it way worse. It stank to high heaven down there. The food, by all accounts, profoundly sucked. And you could never get dry. Their sequestered emergencies took place in narrow steel corridors and had to be faced unshowered. Comparison is the thief of joy, et cetera, but in this case, measuring our lot against the misery of the wretched submariners helped. Like Titanic, Dead Wake appealed precisely because the situation it depicted was so goddamn awful. Nothing sounded worse than drowning in the middle of the ocean. Nothing made me feel better than consuming stories about other people doing so. Was this a psychologically healthy coping method? I did not care. It was a project.

Submarines are an enduringly popular setting for adventure films, war epics, sci-fi movies, and even slapstick comedies starring Kelsey Grammer. It makes sense. The setting is instantly atmospheric, all moody greens and blues and pinging metal and ambient danger. The appeal for storytellers is obvious. Like space, the underwater setting is inherently dramatic, an alien world hostile to human life, brimming with ways to kill our heroes: enemy fire, storms, sharks. The hydrodynamic hull resembles a womb, a tomb, and a weapon all at once, and operates as a great big metaphor for the fragility and terror of being alive. Simply dropping too deep can crush you. The stakes rise with every depth charge and meter descended.

First up: Das Boot, the 1981 Wolfgang Petersen epic about the Nazi Kriegsmarine during WWII. The 1997 director’s cut was 209 minutes long, which seemed like the right length. For the Das Boot uninitiated: It starts out with a war correspondent named Werner driving out to a wild party to meet the crew of a U-boat he’ll be working on. The sub’s cynical, kind-hearted captain gives a drunken speech mocking Hitler, possibly so the audience will feel better about watching a thousand-hour-long movie about protagonists fighting for Hitler. It’s a resolutely unglamorous portrayal; they spend most of the film below the sea in the crowded, grotty submarine, trying desperately to survive increasingly dangerous assignments with some humanity intact. It’s a sad, suspenseful tale, every bit as engrossing and sweeping as Titanic, and decidedly grittier. It made me feel genuine gratitude to be exactly where I was and not hundreds of meters under the Atlantic Ocean doing war crimes.

Appreciation for Das Boot led me to Hulu’s Das Boot remake, a peculiar but enjoyable television show starring Vicky Krieps as the sister of a U-boat radio operator. It lacks the coherence and honesty of the film it is re(das)booting. But it’s not without charms—it’s a surprisingly soapy watch. The cast is wild; Vincent Kartheiser plays an American war profiteer with what can only be described as a newsie-from-Newsies accent, and Lizzy Caplan plays a French resistance figure with substance use issues who ends up hooking up with Krieps. I hope they make a hundred more seasons.

After Das Boot ate up several weeks of fraught springtime evenings, we started in on the big popcorn sub thrillers. Most of these can be divided into two camps. Camp one: the World War II saga, like 1957’s excellent cat-and-mouse chase The Enemy Below, or the Matthew McConaughey-led U-571, where Americans sneak onto a German sub in an attempt to steal an Enigma machine. Camp two: Cold War showdowns, like The Hunt for Red October, where Sean Connery plays a Soviet captain who yearns to be American. (He also starts the movie speaking Russian and then casually switches to English.) The 1990 movie also stars a young, dashing Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan, and it has a stacked supporting cast, including James Earl Jones, Tim Curry, and Stellan Skarsgård. The Hunt for Red October’s plot is as clunky as you’d expect a Tom Clancy adaptation to be, but it in no way prepared me for the wall-to-wall nonsense that is Crimson Tide, the 1995 Tony Scott banger starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman as feuding nuclear submarine officers who should probably both be in jail. Gene Hackman brings his Jack Russell terrier on the sub.


As we plowed through these movies, the situation in New York got even worse. Sirens interrupted our nightly viewings. Three nurses from Florida moved into the apartment next door to work at an overwhelmed nearby hospital. The day they arrived, they went up to the roof to smoke. Their dog Diesel, not used to heights, jumped off the edge. Our 12-year-old neighbor Nina saw him fall. She came upstairs to tell us about it the next morning. I opened the door and I couldn’t understand what she was saying—she speaks ASL, and while Charlie is fluent, I’ve got a kindergartener’s comprehension. It was something about something dying, it was confusing, but she was so flustered and sad. Charlie came to the door and had her repeat the story, his eyes widening. He translated for me.

“Are you sure it fell off the roof?” I asked. “That’s so far!”

Nina was sure.

It sounded too horrible to be true. But like everything else that had been too horrible to be true this year, it was. The nurses made a shrine with candles and a framed photo of Diesel near where he’d landed; it was hard to look at.

More distractions were welcome. We plunged ahead, finding a bit of Das Boot’s weary realism in 2018’s Kursk (released as The Command in the US), a tense Belgian-Luxembourgian production dramatizing a real-life disaster during a 2000 Russian naval exercise. Colin Firth is in it, looking unhappy. Even better than Kursk is Le Chant du Loup (The Wolf’s Call) a French nail-biter about a stressed-out crew trying to decipher mysterious sonar. Not every sub movie is a war movie; Black Sea, a dour 2014 thriller, stars Jude Law as a hard-bitten commercial salvage captain who goes on a poorly planned rogue treasure-hunting excursion. And not every sub movie is a thriller. Down Periscope, which stars Kelsey Grammer as a naughty naval captain, is a fratty slapstick comedy in the key of Police Academy. It was tragic in a different way.

As spring turned to summer, though, I stopped leaning so hard on my ad hoc film syllabus. Covid-19 cases dropped, then dropped some more. The sirens stopped. Life felt bigger again. We adopted a sweet caramel-colored puppy named Furio, met friends in the park for to-go cocktails, and took long bike rides. Nina practiced the sign for “sit” on Furio, and he wagged his perfect curly tail. Seemingly everyone was in the streets protesting police violence. One of the nurses told us they had found a new dog to adopt back in Tampa, a little white fluffball. Most nights, fireworks stuttered across the sky, and we sat outside instead of watching movies.

Then we moved to a new apartment, near the water, and I found my itch for maritime narratives scratched in a different way. Every day at lunch, I walk the dog to a pier and look at the Upper Bay, the tidal strait where the Hudson River meets Atlantic waters. It has its own backstory full of watery cataclysm; it’s the site of a Revolutionary War battle, and in 1916, Germans blew up a temporary munitions depot in the harbor in an act of military sabotage. I thought my project might be complete. Who needed dozens of submarine movies when I could gaze out on real naval history, then leave it behind?

Recently, though, as the virus has surged across the country, the days have darkened, and the pier is too battered with high winds to linger there long, I’ve picked the syllabus back up. There are a few classics left to tackle, like Run Silent, Run Deep, the 1958 classic starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancester, as well as Kathryn Bigelow’s 2002 nuclear sub thriller K-19: The Widowmaker. The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine appears out of reach, as it’s not available for streaming or digital purchase. (There’s a Reddit thread alerting the curious to a pirated version on PornHub, but it doesn’t seem worth the inevitable crop of MILF- and dick-pill-related pop-up ads.)

The most recent submarine movie I watched is another James Cameron epic, The Abyss. When it was released in 1989, The Abyss was considered Cameron’s folly, an expensive misfire with a notoriously troubled shoot. (Ed Harris, who stars as the blue collar hero Bud, allegedly punched Cameron on the set for endangering his life.) It won some visual effects awards but has been mostly treated like a blip in Cameron’s oeuvre. Like so many of its subgenre brethren, the movie begins with a shot of a submarine gliding silently through the deeps. At first, it looks like it could be another Cold War showdown-with-the-Soviets entry; the sub crashes, and a SEAL team is dispatched to look for survivors alongside a ragtag deep sea drilling crew already on the scene, to make sure the nukes don’t land in the hands of the Russians. But the Red Menace is a red herring; instead, a mysterious “non-terrestrial intelligence” lurks below, and the driving conflict is how the humans respond to its inscrutable presence.

The Abyss resembles a tenderhearted melodrama about touching the otherworldly sublime in the vein of Contact or Close Encounters of the Third Kind far more than other sub flicks. Instead of making a war movie, Cameron smuggled a decidedly New Age love story within the lavish trappings of an action blockbuster; the twinned conflicts are whether Bud and his estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) can reconcile, and whether mankind will prove itself worthy of Earth in the eyes of an intelligent but wary alien race. Some critics dinged its ending for being too soppy—we don’t need to get into the details, but it hinges on interplanetary camaraderie and aliens who can magically cure humans of severe decompression illnesses, so they weren’t wrong—but after watching so many superficially similar movies ending with corpses on the seafloor or glorifying war, this unexpectedly squishy outlier caught me at the right moment to forgive its hokum. The aliens believed in humanity’s capacity for good! And they helped Ed Harris and his wife kiss! (Side note, whenever all 36 of the Avatar sequels come out, I will be first in line at the theater.)

I slept soundly after finishing The Abyss, but not for the same reason I’d drifted off after Titanic. I wasn’t taking solace thinking, well, at least we’re not about to plunge into certain oblivion below the waves. It was just good to see people rising out of deep water, alive.

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