When I think of a submarine-based film, the first word that comes into mind is “danger.” It’s a natural for the setting. We’re talking about a setting where those onboard are in a dark, claustrophobic environment, one where the slightest problem can result in death. Such an environment can bring out unpredictable sides of people, which is where Black Sea finds its niche. Black Sea starts off as a treasure hunt, but once the crew are under pressure, the film shifts into one where class warfare from the perspective of the working class comes into play.
Captain Robinson’s (Law) drive to bring a crew together to dive for lost Nazi treasure comes from desperation. After being laid off from his long-term job with an oil company, he finds himself broke and without his family. He agrees to lead the team, and a secret benefactor provides them with an old Russian sub. The team Robinson assembles consists of a combination of old friends and Russians who can understand the ship’s controls, as well as Daniels (McNairy), a representative of the benefactor.
The terms of the deal are dependent on the amount of gold found, to be split between the benefactor and the crew as Robinson sees fit. Against Daniels’ advice of giving the crew members a flat fee, Robinson decides to split the reward equally amongst the crew members. As Daniels notes, though, the men will start to turn on each other once they realize that the fewer men return from the trip, the more money they’ll stand to keep.
With a few exceptions, the British portion of the crew is largely indistinguishable from one another – the exceptions are the psychopathic Fraser and young buck Tobin. The Russians get less attention, mostly relegated to the background or providing tension with the Brits. The tension between the two has nothing on the tension between the crew as a whole and those responsible for their predicament.
Regardless of background, every crew member is on board because they are desperate, and they’ve been driven to desperation by a system that has used and discarded them. They are diving for the promise of treasure, a treasure they aren’t guaranteed, and the dangers they face aren’t ones a person with any sense of security would risk. When the idea of potentially claiming a larger share is added into the equation, Daniels’ idea of a flat fee makes more sense. Greed is a powerful force to begin with; for someone with nothing, it can make a person crazy. They might die trying to gain wealth, but it’s not like life would be manageable without any money. Throw in a risky, tightly contained environment, and the results are combustible.