As I often ask, Why this picture? Why does a given studio choose any particular movie for transfer to high-definition Blu-ray disc when neither critics nor the public wholeheartedly embraced the film in the first place? A case in point here is the 2002 Paramount release "K-19: The Widowmaker," not a bad film, mind you, simply like so many films that find their way to Blu-ray, a very ordinary one. However, in this instance, the reason for the Blu-ray treatment is clear: Kathryn Bigelow produced and directed it, and she's big right now, having recently won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for "The Hurt Locker." You may also know her from competent but less-prestigious films like "Blue Steel," "Point Break," "Strange Days," and "Mission Zero." So it makes sense for a studio to capitalize on a filmmaker's popularity. Of course, the fact that the movie stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson doesn't hurt, either.
A prefacing note to "K-19" tells us that actual events inspired the filmmakers. Of course, how much of what we see really happened and how much is pure Hollywood hokum we'll never know. While I've read that survivors of the real-life event criticized the movie for its taking a host of liberties, what we would have had if the filmmakers hadn't embroidered the truth might not have been enough. "National Geographic" co-sponsored the picture, and without the screenwriters to liven things up we might have gotten a "Nat Geo" television special.
Anyway, it turns out that it wasn't just the Cuban missile crisis that almost precipitated a shooting war between Soviet Russia and America during the height of the Cold War; it was an incident a couple of years earlier in 1961 when Russia launched their first nuclear submarine and an overheating nuclear-reactor rod almost blew it up along with an American navy ship nearby. If the disaster had occurred, the U.S. might have figured the Russians had attacked with a nuclear device and retaliated full strength. "K-19: The Widowmaker" chronicles the incident.
The trouble is that the incident itself, as important and historic as it is, cannot support the weight of a movie over two hours long. So the filmmakers had to add a series of subplots to fill in the time, and that's where things go awry. The film tells us that the Soviets were anxious to get their first nuclear submarine in the water as much as a propaganda stunt as for their own self-protection. But in their rush to make the K-19 the flagship of their fleet, they hurried the job and everything that could go wrong did go wrong. They used substandard materials, they issued incorrect medical supplies, they provided ineffective protective suits, they got a number of men killed during the ship's construction, they changed the ship's commanding officer at the last minute, and, then, during the ship's christening, when they couldn't even get the champagne bottle to break, one crew member remarked, "We're cursed." The crew nicknamed the submarine "the Widowmaker" for all the misfortune it caused before ever going to sea.
The major subplot, though, involves the ship's two primary officers: Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), the vessel's well-liked former commander, whom the Russian Navy removes from his post before the ship ever sets out on its maiden voyage; and Capt. Alexei Vostikov (Harrison Ford), Polenin's stiff-necked replacement. However, the Navy keeps Capt. Polenin aboard the ship as Vostikov's executive officer, a mistake for the ship but the only thing that keeps the movie afloat.
The crew likes Polenin because he's an easygoing fellow and tolerates some of their laxness. Vostikov, on the other hand, is a dedicated, tough-minded, super patriot, determined to put the ship through every imaginable test and show the world how great it is, whether or not it jeopardizes his crew. The two men openly bicker and argue in front of the men, and it is their conflict that sustains most of the movie.
Needless to say, when disaster threatens, Capt. Vostikov insists upon carrying on as normal. He will not allow a nearby U.S. Naval vessel to help them in any way because he feels he must follow orders, and he will not allow the world to see that the Russian Navy needs the assistance of the Americans.
Here are some of the problems with the film: (1) It's too long. At two hours and fifteen minutes, it seems to go on forever, with mainly bickering between the two officers. (2) The only suspense the movie generates is waiting for the inevitable to happen, which, because we know what's going to happen, anyway, and the outcome (we didn't go to war with Russia, after all), isn't all that much. (3) Bigelow and the screenwriters draw out every detail to the nth degree, making the movie seem even longer than the real ship's voyage in real time. (4) The melodramatic musical score doesn't help so much as hinder the film's histrionics. (5) Things slow down to a crawl by the midway point, becoming little more than tedious. (6) Everything about the plot and characters is predictable. (7) Probably worst of all, when it's over, the movie leaves us wondering what it was all about; beyond the central incident, I mean. The filmmakers never make clear the actual reasons for the two officers' behavior, especially for their actions at the end of the movie, leaving the audience in an ambiguous state of mind about the whole officer-vs-officer affair.
"K-19: The Widowmaker" is certainly a well-made motion picture from a technical standpoint, and even though it becomes a chore listening to the two old pros, Ford and Neeson, doing Russian accents for so long, they do manage to carry the film. It's just that there isn't enough film there for them to carry.
Paramount use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4 codec to reproduce the film on high-definition Blu-ray disc. Needless to say, they maintain the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as well as a modicum of inherent film grain for realism. Object delineation is OK, although there is a slight veiling over many scenes, even bright daylight shots. I assume Ms. Bigelow intended this minor shrouding of the picture to simulate real-life conditions, especially when inside the submarine. Although black levels are fairly deep, the more-shadowy areas of the screen nevertheless reveal much detail. On occasion you may notice some small print damage or deterioration, but it is almost unnoticeable and certainly not a distraction.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio does a fine job replicating the film's soundtrack. It displays a wide front-channel stereo spread; deep, sometimes thundrous bass; and a few impressive surround effects in select scenes, such as the submarine breaking through an ice shelf and later launching a missile. Transient impact, clarity, overall dynamics, and naturalness come through admirably as well.
The first item among the extras is a feature-length audio commentary by director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the director talking mostly about thematic matters and the cinematographer mostly about technical concerns. Then we get four featurettes in standard def: "The Making of K-12: The Widowmaker," about twenty minutes long, a promo for the film oddly stretched and distorted to accommodate a widescreen size; "Exploring the Craft: Make-up Techniques," about five minutes, on just that, make-up, especially radiation burns; "Breaching the Hull," about five minutes, on special effects; and "It's in the Details," about twelve minutes, on researching the film's historical accuracy.
The extras conclude with sixteen scene selections; bookmarks; a widescreen theatrical trailer in high definition; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"K-19: The Widowmaker" takes its place among a small group of undersea motion pictures like "Destination Tokyo," "Run Silent, Run Deep," "Das Boot," "Crimson Tide," and "The Search for Red October." Unfortunately, it takes its place at the end of the line. Personally, I'd vote for Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," but maybe that doesn't count.