Director: Todd Robinson
Cast: Ed Harris, David Duchovny, William Fichtner, Sean Patrick Flanery, Jonathan Schaech, Jason Beghe, Derek Magyar, Lance Henriksen
MPAA Rating: (for violence)
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 3/1/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 1, 2013
The coda of Phantom informs us that the incident of the disappearance of a Soviet submarine with nuclear launch capabilities in 1968 portrayed beforehand is still considered classified by both the United States and Russian governments. This means that the opening title purporting that the movie is "inspired by actual events" really signifies that just about everything within it has been made up out of whole cloth. As Cold War speculation, the screenplay by writer/director Todd Robinson would be laughable, if not for the fact that the movie possesses a fairly engrossing sense of location.
Save for the early expository scenes and a ludicrous epilogue, Phantom is set almost entirely in the interior of a Soviet sub—a relic that is one last tour away from having its important equipment removed and being sent to China. It is cramped, with barely enough room for a sailor to move out of the way for his captain to pass and low overheads that threaten to cause quite a headache for any man unaware of them, and outdated, with technology that demands every member of the crew be on his best game at every moment and diesel engines that make the vessel's detection by American naval forces a certainty. None of these men wants to be on the boat, save for two who have Machiavellian intent that could bring the world to nuclear war.
The stakes are as high as they could possibly be, which inevitably puts Robinson in a corner when it comes time to resolve the affair. Everything else, from the slight characterizations of its supporting characters to the torment of its protagonist and every plot point and piece of political intrigue in between, gets put on hold—never to return, let alone achieve adequate resolution—once the concept of a global nuclear holocaust comes into play.
Ed Harris plays Captain Dmitri Zubov, lovingly known as "Demi" to his loyal crew; he and his men have recently returned from a patrol and are expecting a long leave. It's cut short when an admiral (Lance Henriksen) assigns Demi and his crew to take the B-67 on one, final patrol. Demi has a history with the boat and the admiral, namely that his command of the former during a training exercise led to the deaths of half a dozen men and that he married the woman to whom the latter was engaged. If it seems like a punishment for an old slight, take note that, just as the submarine leaves port, the admiral puts a pistol to his head and pulls the trigger.
From this vaguely ominous and overtly melodramatic act, we're aware that something is not quite right with this tour. In addition to his crew, Demi has been ordered to bring along a pair of technicians named Bruni (David Duchovny) and Garin (Derek Magyar) who are working on a super-top-secret project. The goal of this mission is to test it out when conditions are right; when Demi asks what those conditions are, Bruni, who also has a clandestine connection to the captain, quite succinctly lets Demi know that it's none of his business.
The conflict aboard the boat amounts to a battle between the crew's devotion to their commander and their duty to their orders. Demi's executive officer Alex (William Fichtner) has stood by him for years, and when the time for a decision between Demi and his future in the Navy arrives, it's a quick one. The sub's political officer Pavlov (Jonathon Schaech), on the other hand, has a much tougher choice. The rumor among the officers of the boat is that the two engineers are actually members of OSNAZ, a secretive special forces unit of the KGB, and that they might be rogue agents. People and their families disappear when they go against this group, and if the officers are wrong, the repercussions from the government might be just as bad.
Meanwhile, Demi is having hallucinations and epileptic seizures (only when it's convenient for atmosphere or plot) brought on by an old head injury, and Bruni is moving closer and closer to having his device ready for operation. The buildup of the mystery behind the device and the technicians' motivations is intriguing, and the machine itself, though probably the invention of imagination for the time, is at least plausible.
Once the pieces have been set, though, the movie goes into autopilot with underwater cat-and-mouse chases, submarine battles, and a whole lot of running and crawling back and forth between and underneath compartments of the sub with occasional outbursts of gunplay. There's a desperate race to disable the boat's nuclear warhead (in part by a character who's inexplicably claustrophobic, no less) while characters whose names we barely know must make Important Decisions and obvious, foreshadowed shifts of fidelity unfold.
Robinson does make good use of his set during the extended climax, although the conclusion comes completely out of left field—an attempt to add some unearned pathos and spirituality to a story that needs neither of those elements. Phantom has an appreciation of history to a point, and then the movie merely does a lot to little effect.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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