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22 May

USS Scorpion submarine sinks, 1968

On this day in 1968, a nuclear submarine called the USS Scorpion was lost at sea in mysterious circumstances with 99 crewmen on board. Scorpion had been built in 1958 and had gone into service in 1960. Operating on the US’s eastern seaboard, she mostly took part in patrols of the Atlantic coast as part of the on-going development of Cold War submarine tactics, though she did occasionally operate in European waters. In 1966 she filmed a Soviet missile launch after stealthily having made the “Northern Run” to Novaya Zemlya, a Russian archipelago on the north eastern extremity of Europe. This necessitated a hasty retreat after she was spotted by the Soviet navy. In early 1967 she was overhauled at her home port of Norfolk Naval Shipyard, though due to a perceived heating up of the Cold War, some corners were cut and some long-overdue work was not carried out. Notably, a weakness in the emergency system was not addressed – the same weakness that had led to the loss of the USS Thresher nuclear submarine in 1963. Scorpion was then deployed in the Mediterranean between February and May 1968, during which time the ship was plagued with mechanical malfunctions. En route for home, she stopped at the Azores, to observe Soviet naval activities in the area. Shortly thereafter the submarine disappeared. It was located in October, under 3,000m of water, with its hull crushed by the sheer weight of water. Theories accounting for the submarine’s loss include that a torpedo was accidentally launched which then homed back in on the sub; that a torpedo inside the sub exploded; that a trash disposal unit malfunctioned, flooding the vessel; and that it was attacked by a Soviet submarine. Heading the list of possibles is the theory that the sub was destroyed by a torpedo exploding inside its launch tube, which then flooded the submarine, taking its crew to their deaths.

Submarine (2010, dir: Richard Aoyade)

Why Submarine? After watching this funny yet eventually slash-your-wrists desperate coming-of-ager directed and screen-written by Richard Ayoade (of TV’s The IT Crowd), it’s a question you might well ask. Coming across as a lewd-whimsical fusion of Napoleon Dynamite and The Inbetweeners (more British TV), Submarine follows a smart, self-obsessed 15-year-old Welsh kid Oliver (Craig Roberts) through various, mostly domestic, travails – his parents’ faltering marriage, the attempts by a shabby local guru (Paddy Considine) to make a move on his mother (Sally Hawkins), his attempts to persuade his girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige) to have sex with him.

We have been here before, if you’ve seen Rushmore then Oliver’s bumptiously intellectual persona will be more than familiar. But it’s the pungency of the characters that orbit Oliver that give Submarine its flavour, Considine in particular as the total self-help cock, a man “burdened by his gift” and making sport with the gullible. Though some medal ought also to be struck for Darren Evans as Chops, a minor character so vivid he could spin off into his own film – half mad, half stupid, a third bully, a third tool, a quarter genius. If only he were in the film more.

Looked at as a whole, Submarine doesn’t quite stitch its many brilliant scenes into the brilliant film it ought to be. Some of that is because Ayoade refuses to let Oliver triumph – if Oliver goes to kick someone in the nuts, that someone will catch his leg on the upswing. Some of it is because there’s a deep river of misery running right through the middle of the film – to answer the question, it’s called Submarine because Oliver’s dad is suffering from a terrible debilitating depression, which he describes as like being underwater. So this “failure” is at least one which springs from artistic decisions, not weaknesses.

And talking of artistic decisions, Ayoade’s frequent switch into Oliver’s subjective viewpoint is one of the film’s real pluses, our duffel-coated hero seeing the world as a big French New Wave film in which he is the ineffably cool personification of cultured suaveté – cue zooms, freeze frames, intertitles and all the usual visual clichés – while Arctic Monkey Alex Turner’s Brit-Poppy soundtrack allows Ayoade to hit the pause button and slide sideways into dreamy montages. It’s a great feature debut by Ayoade, who would follow up with the even more ambitious The Double.

Why Watch?

  • For the Catcher in the Rye vibe
  • For Alex Turner’s songs
  • For the great cast
  • Because Ayoade is a talent worth following

Submarine – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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