Review: 'Phantom'

The year is 1968, the height of the Cold War, and we're introduced to the rainy and brooding Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base. Ed Harris stalks the grounds as grizzled Soviet Captain Demi; within a few minutes he's immersed in a darkly-lit conversation with a superior officer. There's an urgent mission the captain must undertake, a mysterious and foreboding score hammering home that something is amiss. Their chat, naturally, is gobbledygook, because we don't yet know anything about the film, but there is one sequence of dialogue that cries out for preservation, if only to be filed in the "massively odd emotional overreach within the first 300 seconds of a film" folder. Take it away, boys:

CAPTAIN DEMI: (gruffly) Can we be redeemed for the things we've done?

ADMIRAL MARKOV: (also gruffly) I don't know. In our dreams, maybe.

It's going to be that sort of movie. Still, things do pick up from there as Captain Demi rounds up his men and heads out to the dock where he's introduced to a rickety diesel submarine. The submarine, the K-129, is on her last mission before she's scheduled to be sold to the Chinese Navy. Also aboard, and adding to Captain Demi's uncertainty, are a couple of shady KGB officers. What are these guys doing here? Does the K-129 have a secret mission to which no one is privy? And could Ed Harris be any more gruff? All of these questions and more and more will be answered in "Phantom" - a "based on a true story" military thriller that has a few nice moments but no overarching ambition.

Bruni (David Duchovny ) is one of the aforementioned KGB officers, and it's clear he has his own designs on Captain Demi's ship. While Captain Demi is efforting to keep his crew safe and suss out exactly what The KGB wants with his boat, Bruni struts around, often countermanding the captain's orders. The political climate of the time was certainly tricky to maneuver, and so the stilted interplay between Harris and Duchovny is probably accurate, with the downside being it's impossible to tell if either side is being rude, purposefully vague, plotting or manipulative at any given time. No one is on anyone's side, theoretically, and while we can grasp that momentous happenings are afoot it becomes difficult to maintain attachment to the work when you're not even sure who you're cheering for anymore. On this front, Captain Demi's epilepsy and horror-style flashbacks don't help matters either. It's also entirely clear that this film was made at the lower edge of the budget spectrum. There are only about three sets, each of them anywhere from three to eight feet wide, and the vast majority of shots are so tight you can't see anything but the character's face. This claustrophobic feel does mimic an actual submarine ride, but it also draws a curtain down around the story, not allowing any light in for entertainment.

Now, as to what the film is actually about, I'll merely provide a few of the possibilities hinted at in "Phantom" so as not to steer this bus toward Spoilertown. Captain Demi, as a character, seems like he's being set up. The KGB guys look and act like villains. A new weapon, a potentially destabilizing one, is being tested on the submarine. Certain crew members might just be traitors, and Captain Demi has a checkered past that could very well come back to haunt him. "Phantom" throws out all measures of story asides, hoping each will stick, though very few of them manage to find purchase.

Then, egads, the ending. It's plain terrible, even bewildering. Had "Phantom" had any measure of courage, it could have been an interesting take on the Cold War, on Soviet-US relations, or on the stalwart gentlemen who choose to live their life below the waterline. It attempts none of these, instead preferring to gild the lily and ignore any shred of intellect an audience might bring into the theater with them. The idea of the film is certainly clever enough, it's the execution that lacks finesse. The details around "The Phantom" feel forced, and so threadbare is the logic presented that the mention it was inspired by true events only undercuts our overall acceptance. Unfortunately, Ed Harris and company can't lift this one off the seafloor, and "Phantom" fades away into the murky mist, another casualty of of story arc and limited imagination.

Grade: C-

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and loved that 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea ride they used to have at Disney World.