Review: 'Phantom' Does Not Do the Submarine Sub-Genre Any Favors
by Jeremy Kirk
March 1, 2013
Run Silent, Run Deep had Gable versus Lancaster. The Hunt for Red October had Connery versus Baldwin. Crimson Tide had Hackman versus Washington. There's a long history of two high-caliber actors going against one another in submarine movies. It usually involves a nuclear missile that may or may not be launched. Phantom, the latest of these, features Ed Harris versus David Duchovny, and while a law of diminishing returns is being felt in the overall trajectory of submarine movies, Phantom doesn't do the sub-genre any favors, delivering a plodding, often hokey thriller that only thrills on its fairly calm surface.
Based on true events during the heart-of-the-Cold-War 1968, Phantom tells the story of a Soviet captain, Demi (Harris), who, after an accident at sea where many of his men were killed, suffers from epileptic fits and moments of hallucinations. Seems the perfect candidate to hand one of three keys used to launch a nuclear missile. But Demi's mental state is the least of his or his crew's concerns. Also settling in on board is a group of technicians, chief among them Bruni (Duchovny), an officer who clearly knows more than he's saying and has very mysterious intentions with Demi's ship.
And once everything is revealed, once all the haze and shadow surrounding the apparent mystery writer/director Todd Robinson has injected into Phantom's screenplay has been cast aside, yeah, it's about two guys on either end of the decision to start World War III. Even Phantom's poster has WWIII in bigger letters than the actual title, so it can't be ruled a spoiler here. It's that haze and shadow, though, that quickly takes the viewer out of the experience of the streamlined, nail-biting thriller Phantom could have been.
Much is made early about Demi's mental abilities. Robinson even goes so far as to visualize some of his hallucinations for us, and while it's an interesting angle to take for a naval captain protagonist here, it never really amounts to much. Once the final "Oh, that's what this is about" comes out, the hallucinations and epileptic seizures never become a factor again, at least not to the level where they add to the story. If they had, there may even be a level of suspense to Phantom, but there's not. A lot of faux-tense moments include all the bells and whistles you might find in a submarine movie; the ship creaking under the weight of the water, sonar pings, officers yelling about "FISH IN THE WATER!" By the time the screenplay comes to the "What do we do now?" pause "We wait." exchange, the amount of generic material we find here takes over any real sense of drama or intensity.
Robinson's camera movement in and through the ship includes an air of claustrophobia, possibly something that just comes naturally with the sub-genre. Nonetheless, the resulting atmosphere and now-and-again sense of panic Phantom draws from the audience make seeing the film in a darkened theater the ideal choice. It unsettles the viewer just enough so that once Bruni reveals just how sadistic he is, the blood he sheds makes you squirm just a little bit more.
But far past these genuine moments of unease comes the overloaded melodrama and standard dialogue that goes with it, Harris and William Fichtner, as Demi's right-hand man, barrel through and deliver top-notch performances. Nothing in a film can hold Ed Harris' determination back, and the 110% he gives is always something to look forward to in a film he's in. Fichtner has quickly raised his bar from being another "that guy" to earning full-fledged star value, and it's easy to see why. Like Harris, he always delivers the goods, playing emotional and resonant just as effortlessly as he plays creepy and sinister.
Duchovny is on cruise control, kind of the way he always plays it. Even when he's slitting throats and heartlessly sending bullets into people, his expression is the same, blank stare he gives when talking about "weapons ballistics." To his credit, though, Bruni's one-note motivations aren't helping him. The rest of Phantom's cast features such second-hand players as Lance Henriksen, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Johnathon Schaech, and the overall force of their recognizable faces almost distracts you from their lack of Russian accents. No, Russian accents aren't even attempted here, but that's probably for the better.
It goes along with the chintzy computer effects for the underwater battle scenes and overwrought, jaw-clenching dialogue you've heard a million times. Phantom just feels like a film that isn't trying very hard, and the stamp of authenticity on its story and the concern of just how close we were at the time can only carry it so far. The rest is made up of tools we've been seeing hard at work for years, tools that have grown blunted and ineffective. Unfortunately, Robinson does try for something at the end of his lumbering story, but while he's aiming for emotion, he only ends up landing on the hard surface of ridiculousness. Sadly, Phantom sinks under the weight of lame storytelling long before that, anyway.
Jeremy's Rating: 4 out of 10