Fox // 2013 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 11th, 2013
You'll never see it coming
There are substantiated reports of people free-falling, minus a parachute, several thousand feet and surviving. Yes, it hurts, and yes, they're often damaged, but people do survive. Contrast that with the world under the ocean: get trapped more than a hundred feet below the surface without special equipment and survival is unlikely. After a few hundred feet, survival is impossible. Between the pressure, temperate, and predators, the ocean is one of the least hospitable environments on the planet. Perhaps the inside of volcanoes is worse, but it's rare that someone gets deep into a volcano and then has an "Oh, $#!%" moment stranding them in the magma. That can easily happen in a submarine. It's not that hard to get underwater, and once the pressure mounts, even the tiniest breach can spell death for everyone on board. A cheery thought, for sure, but it gives movies set on submarines a certain built-in tension that many thriller don't get to exploit. Strangely, this built-in tension means that the best submarine movies have to offer something else to be really successful, whether that's a crackerjack plot (The Hunt for Red October) or great dialogue (Crimson Tide). Phantom tries to throw good actors at a true-life Soviet sub story but misses the mark.
In an unspecified time during the Soviet/Cold War era, Captain Demi (Ed Harris, The Rock) is given control of an experimental sub and sent into the Pacific on a secret mission. Also on board is sketchy KGB agent Bruni (David Duchovny, Californication). Demi questions his own fitness for duty, thanks to medical problems, and when he discovers that a technology is onboard that could allow the Russian submarine to appear to be a non-military vessel to observers, he must look deeper into Bruni's plans.
Phantom gets one thing right straight out of the gate: casting Ed Harris. That guy can make the back of a cereal box sound like Shakespeare. He's not given a whole lot to work with here, but the sketches of his character are transformed in his hands. He's got to juggle medical problems that threaten his command, a submarine that could fall apart on him, and a mission that's being advocated for by an untrustworthy KGB agent. It's enough to give Harris the material to transform Demi into a sympathetic character who we don't want to see either blow up the world or lose command of his sub.
The other things that Phantom gets right is maintaining the claustrophobia of the underwater environment. I've seen some movies set in submarines that were obviously filmed on spacious soundstages, and that sacrifices two of the advantages of setting a story on a sub: the tightness of the quarters and the proximity of death. Phantom's director (Todd Robinson) stays claustrophobic throughout, offering lots of tense shots of tight spaces.
Phantom (Blu-ray) isn't terrible, either. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is sold. Detail is strong and black levels are generally deep and consistent, if a bit gray in place. The interior of the ship isn't pretty or colorful, but skin tones stay accurate. A bit of noise creeps into darker scenes, but compression artifacts aren't a problem. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is a bit better. Dialogue is always clean and clear, and the surrounds offer good directionality for ambient underwater effects. The bass rumbles appropriately during more action-oriented sequences, creating an immersive environment.
Extras start with a commentary featuring director Todd Robinson and Ed Harris. The pair are chatty and informative, and at least as entertaining as the film. Then we get a trio of featurettes that offer info on the production, an overview of the real-life Phantom submarine, and a piece on the film's score. There's a music video as well, and an Ultraviolet copy of the movie included.
As if to balance out the casting of Ed Harris, David Duchovny is absolutely miscast as the creepy KGB agent. I don't doubt Duchovny's skills as an actor, but he's not give much to work with here and the results are unimpressive. Instead of being slimy or sneaky, his agent seems listless. He's supposed to be intimidating, but the whole film gives the impression that Ed Harris' Demi could eat him for lunch. Thankfully nobody tries for a Russian accent, so we have that small mercy, but Harris needed a proper heavyweight to counter his presence and Duchovny just isn't it.
The best sub movies make us forget that the world is still spinning. If viewers remember for a second that we're all still here, then the tension of a possible nuclear strike is diminished, especially for historically-influenced nuclear threats. Yes, Phantom is based on a true story, but we know that the Russians didn't launch a nuke at us and the submarine sank into the Pacific. That means that Phantom has to work extra hard to overcome our disbelief, and thanks to a third-act that piles on the sentimentality, the whole thing never quite comes together.
You'll probably see most of Phantom coming, but the flick is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Music Video
* Digital Copy
* UltraViolet Download