“Phantom” (2013), which is “inspired by actual events,” tries to tell the story of a Cold War-era Soviet submarine voyage that almost launched WWIII. But a hokey script laden down with clichés sinks it before it can even get out of port.
I’m not exaggerating. In the opening 10 minutes, when an old captain (Ed Harris) is reunited with his first ship—a Diesel-powered clunker that’s armed with nuclear missiles—we get dialogue obviously intended to deliver exposition or “deep thought” lines that come out of nowhere (like the captain asking if his superior thinks they will ever find redemption for the things that they’ve done in life) that a warning siren already starts to sound. You know this thing is going down. It’s just a matter of when.
The reality peg is an actual incident involving the K-129, a Soviet sub that sank in some 16,000 feet of water off the coast of Hawaii and was partially recovered by the U.S. Navy—yet remains a mystery to all but those with the highest security clearance. “Phantom” is based on Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S., a speculative narrative from historian Kenneth Sewell. It sounds like exciting stuff, and it would seem to be a sure-fire winner in the tradition of “Crimson Tide” or “The Hunt for Red October.”
But that script from writer-director Todd Robinson (“Angel Fire”) is just too much for the cast to overcome. The lines are downright silly at times—something you notice when Harris finally gets his hands on a decent monologue and we can see right away that the problem isn’t the acting.
I have to admit that it was also a bit of a jolt to have Robinson eschew a dialect coach and just have Harris, co-star David Duchovny and the other Russians aboard the ill-fated submarine speak in their normal voices, with no attempt to sound like a Russian speaking English as a second language. It’s as if Robinson just decided that if every shot shows the sailors gulping down tumblers of vodka, we’ll all get that their Russian. In fairness, since we’re eavesdropping behind the scenes of an all-Russian crew, I suppose there’s no logic for having people speak English with a Russian accent, so why not drop all pretext? Well, because added to the bad dialogue, it creates a few holes that start to let the water in, it pulls us so out of the illusion of plot and situation.
Speaking of which, the plot is surprisingly plodding, considering that we have an older captain with both a shady and glorious past, a loyal (if alcoholic) crew, and several KGB agents whose “mission” onboard is kept from the captain and the others. Compared to “Crimson Tide” or “The Hunt for Red October” or even classic submarine films like “Run Silent Run Deep” and “Destination Tokyo,” the drama just doesn’t mount or sustain the same level of tension.
For all the complaints that I have about the film itself, the video quality is superb. Much of the film was shot in low light, but detail never gets lost and there’s no evidence of DNR or other tinkering. For that matter, there are no compression issues as a result of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 25GB disc.
The featured audio—and English DTS MA 5.1 (19MBPS)—is even better. You can hear every bolt creaking, every pound of water pressing against the hull with frightening clarity. There’s some nice directional activity too, across the sound field, as when torpedoes are fired.
No additional audio options are provided, but there are subtitle options in English SDH and Spanish.
Robinson and Harris team up for a routine commentary that often seems like a defense of the choices the director made, or a litany of difficulties that come with the territory when you try to make a first-run film on a low budget using an actual decommissioned submarine rather than a set.
The only other bonus features are a very brief (13 min.) making-of extra that covers some of the same ground and goes into more detail about filming on a real sub, along with a six-minute short featuring Sewell talking about the K-129 and his book, and a three-minute feature on “Jeff Rona: Scoring Phantom”—which is actually kind of cool. He talks about how he used actual noises from the sub and incorporated them into the score. Rounding out the bonus features is “An Ocean Away” music video.
Watching “Phantom,” you can’t help but recall all the more successful submarine dramas you’ve seen and wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t manage to do more with a pretty exciting concept.