They go in the sub, sub goes in the water, they go in the water. Water’s in the water, cold water.
Thrillers that take place in confined spaces are a sub-genre unto themselves with titles like Buried (guy trapped in a coffin), Brake (guy trapped in a trunk), Frozen (idiots trapped on a ski lift), and Devil (sinners trapped on an elevator) looking for suspense, drama, and terror in a single small location. The environments come with built-in tension ready to either be exploited or squandered.
The Chamber does a little bit of both.
Relations between North Korea and the West rest on a hair trigger as the former tests new missiles and the latter threatens retaliation. Mats (Johannes Kuhnke, Force Majeure) is a civilian researcher aboard a vessel traveling in the Yellow Sea, but he’s awakened one night to discover their scientific mission has changed. An elite military unit has boarded the ship with the authority to commandeer it for their own purpose. They need help retrieving something from the ocean floor, and Mats has been “volunteered” to pilot three of them down on his mini-sub. The tension between them is immediately present as he clashes on the issue of authority with the most gung-ho member of the trio, Parks (James McArdle). The other two are a bit more reserved, at least at first, with Denholm (Elliot Levey) focusing on the mission’s technical details and Edwards (Charlotte Salt) in command.
It’s a 70s era submersible, and while Mats warns them of its limitations their determination towards an unspecified mission leaves his concerns falling on deaf ears. Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before things take a turn for the worse, and the motley crew soon find themselves trapped at the bottom of the sea. The sub’s immobile, water’s leaking in, and they have no radio contact with the outside world. It’s not looking good for poor Mats.
Writer/director Ben Parker creates a familiar but still engaging scenario here, but as the brief running time ticks by increases in pressure are met with equal decreases. The film begins to battle itself as viewers are pulled closer and pushed away in repeated succession. For every dire plot turn a character commits a cliched act that leads to another dire plot turn, and so on and so on. The end result is a thriller that never quite takes as firm a hold as it should.
Performances are fine with each member of the military trio fulfilling their character’s particular beats, but Kuhnke stands out with more credibility. His English feels awkward at times, but the uncertainty plays well into Mats’ increased concerns over the situation and the others’ actions. We feel his frustrations, and more than anything else they work to build a palpable suspense. He’s the one we’re rooting for, and he’s the reason we’re compelled to the very end.
The issue of survival here sees the four characters playing as much against each other as they are against external threats, and it works well enough when it’s not trying too hard to remind viewers of The Abyss. The aggressive military dude panicking with the bends is obvious enough, but attempts to match the feels bubbling up towards the end of James Cameron’s film fail as we have no emotional connection to support it.
The Chamber is a perfectly okay thriller that never quite takes full advantage of its claustrophobic setting.