The James Clayton Column: “But the title said there’d be a submarine.”

Shaken by the absence of submersible vessels in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, James wonders, what’s in a name…?


If you don’t have any expectations, you can’t be disappointed. As humans we can only take so much disappointment before we slip into a prolonged state of despair. When the real world is depressing, the last thing we need is the ‘reel world’ of cinematic escape to promise a lot and then come up woefully short.

I’d go so far as to attribute the popularity of apocalypse-themed pop culture to society’s frustration that the promised bright future never seems to come.

Even though expecting the worst means you could be pleasantly surprised, it’s probably best not to be either pessimistic or optimistic. Really, if the future is unwritten (because Destiny is the screenwriter and he’s a lazy procrastinator), we shouldn’t focus our energy on what’s to come, but concentrate on the present. Don’t get hung up and attach all this meaning, emotion and anxiety to the future! Live in the now!

This is why going into a film completely cold is probably the perfect way to experience a movie. You don’t have any expectations and your reading isn’t affected or ‘tainted’ (by reviews, marketing material, casual discussion, etc.). Ignorance is bliss if, by avoiding the hype, you get a pure, fresh appreciation of the film, free of prejudices and plot spoilers.

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It’s extremely hard to approach prominent blockbusters without bringing in some baggage and that’s why highly anticipated flicks can sometimes be hugely underwhelming. Cases in point: the Star Wars prequels and Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. All your excitement and childhood affection gets built up, to be brought down by something that’s not as awesome as you hoped, with the fridge getting nuked and Jar Jar Binks treading in Bantha poodoo.

On reflection, complete cold immersion is the ideal condition in which to experience a new release. Totally fresh and free from ‘pollution’, you get raw essence without preconceptions, prejudiced thought or mental filtering.

It’s rare you can achieve this, but I suppose when I saw Submarine recently I had something pretty close, in that I didn’t know anything beyond the fact it was a British film about a teenager that had got glowing reviews. I also had a feeling it wasn’t going to feature a submarine.

Yet, the title caught my imagination and even though I absolutely loved Richard Ayoade’s debut feature and recommend it as something truly special, a small part of me wishes they’d dropped in a submarine dream sequence somewhere. It’s all down to my delusions of one day becoming Captain Nemo or living The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (red bob hat, customised Team Zissou sneakers and everything).

The Spy Who Loved Me is among my favourite 007 flicks, purely because it contains submarines. I’ve got a thing for underwater adventure and in an alternate reality I’d be an oceanic explorer with my own Nautilus and Kirk Douglas on my crew, chronicling each whale of a tale we experienced in musical numbers.

I’ll get over it, but I worry that other cinemagoers entering into Submarine might not (if they can find a screening, that is). People might pick the movie purely because they want Das Boot or nautical special effects action, but there aren’t any U-boats, torpedoes or shouts of “up periscope!” in this picture.

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It’s possible that someone might see the word ‘submarine’ and get excited about blockbuster-scale underwater battles. After spending money instead on a quirky indie film about an pubescent intellectual Welsh landlubber, they may get angry and feel like they’ve been misled by false advertising. If they’re intolerant and susceptible to volatile emotional episodes, they may even go on a violent rampage and torch the cinema, and then everyone’s night out at the movies is ruined.

The cinema-going masses can be incredibly dumb and wilfully ignorant at times. Returning to the idea of the reel world being an escapist alternative to hard reality, a large segment of the audience doesn’t want to be challenged. Films with difficult titles that bear no similarity to the actual content aren’t likely to go down well.

People know what they’re getting and thus feel safe with, say, Gladiator, RoboCop or The Little Mermaid. It’s harder to establish an instant bond or understanding with films that have names like The Shawshank Redemption, The Hudsucker Proxy or The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser. A great many viewers don’t want to get caught up in questions about what this curious enigma, proxy or redemption might be. They just want to see a little fish girl as explicitly promised on the tin.

There’s a case to be made, then, for keeping it as simple as possible so that great films get seen and so audiences don’t get unnerved. Thinking about the simple arsonist compelled to unleash Molotov cocktails at the multiplex because Submarine was nothing like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I came to realise that there are loads of ‘misnamed’ movies out there. Some of them could actually end up being very disturbing, if unaware spectators surrender themselves expecting exactly what’s in the title.

It’s a dangerous cinematic landscape out there for the unassuming and undiscerning. Innocent people could potentially undergo traumatic experiences, just because the film they opted for wasn’t what they thought it would be. Considering viewer’s feelings, psychological fragility and the risk that riled individuals might resort to acts of arson, going into a movie completely cold may not always be ideal.

As a general rule of thumb, if you don’t like nasty surprises or have an unhealthy fascination with fire, always read the plot synopsis first. Sensitive animal enthusiasts should be especially vigilant. There’s only one German shepherd in Reservoir Dogs and Animal Kingdom is not the happy safari film you might expect it to be. Similarly, don’t expect Trainspotting to be a love letter to your hobby, unless you shoot up while you wait on station platforms.

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Otherwise, I’d urge under familiarity and cold reading as more of an appealing way to experience films. Even without its own Nautilus, Submarine is a wonderful film and it’s a very appropriate title that perfectly suits the story, mood and soul of the feature.

The best alternatives I could come up with (‘Burned Leg Hair’ and ‘Bathtub’) don’t quite cut it and though ‘Ninja Handjob’ accurately reflects the quiet pleasurable surprise the movie delivers, it won’t do. It’d be hard to sell that to mainstream audiences and expectant viewers are going to be left frustrated and underwhelmed. Submarine it is, then, preferably through cold immersion. Dive, dive, dive!

James’ previous column can be found here.

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