Tell me if this sounds familiar: a Russian submarine carrying a device that can ghost its presence to other submarines is willing to start World War 3. If the first thought that popped into your mind was The Hunt for Red October (1990) then you’re amongst the many. I wasn’t, but that’s because just prior to writing this review I watched Red October for the first time. Comparisons aside Phantom is a film that takes place almost entirely within a submarine and focuses on its characters, their virtues and their faults as human beings.
Unlike Red October’s 1984 setting, the story of Phantom takes place in 1968 and almost all inside a diesel powered submarine that’s about to run its last course before being decommissioned and scrapped. There’s the captain Demi (Ed Harris); his up-and-coming Executive Officer Alex (William Fichtner); and a couple of new guys led by KGB Agent Bruni (David Duchovny). The rest of the crew is simply the rest of the crew. Bruni installs a secret new device on the sub and has specific instructions to test it thoroughly and make sure that it works. His command, apparently, supersedes Demi’s.
Demi and Alex don’t trust Bruni and eventually force an explanation of what the “Phantom” device is and does. Bruni becomes the film’s antagonist and attempts to start a third world war and the entire crew is split due to a mutiny. Demi and Alex attempt to win back their command of the ship, etc. There’s a plot to the film but it’s not nearly interesting as its characters.
Through the first half of the film we get the sense that the crew has a lot of respect for Captain Demi and his supposed legendary status. What they don’t know is that he’d commanded this ship before, that he made several terrible mistakes while running it, and that there was a fire in which many lives were lost. He’s haunted by his actions and now suffers from epileptic seizures of which, of course, the crew must know nothing. High command eventually gives him one last command before he “retires” and is given this scrapheap of a ship.
The film showcases a forced sense of claustrophobia utilizing tight shots. From what I’ve read, the film was shot on an actual Soviet-era sub. It makes sense to do so and as a result we feel like we’re actually there. The actors dress the part and all text found in the film is written in Russian. Authenticity is key, and here it not only serves a purpose but it works.
One reason I mention authenticity is because not a single actor utilizes any kind of Russian or Russian-like accent. They all speak perfect English with American accents and that’s the way I like it. To me there’s nothing phonier than an American film that stars American actors who pretend to be foreign simply by speaking perfect English with foreign accents. I hate it. Also, all of the characters are Russian so that makes it easier, too.
The biggest problem with the film is its screenplay. It treats the audience like children and over-explains certain scenarios and ideas repeatedly. One person asks another, “Do you know what this means?” And that person responds with, “Yes.” Then he proceeds to explain it to the audience, even though we also know what it means because the year is 2013 and not 1968. This happens too often and can be a big turn off. Also, the characters are cliches. But I dare you to find characters that aren’t nowadays.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again (yes it’s my attempt at irony): if you have a good script you have a good film. It’s a mantra that filmmakers and screenwriters around the globe follow. But from that rationale this should be a bad film because the screenplay and the dialogue within it are mostly inept. So what reasons could I possibly have for recommending this film? Well, the art direction and costume design departments have the look and feel of the sub and its characters down to a tee. You always feel like you’re being compressed into tight spaces, unlike Red October’s shiny and wide interiors, and you never forget that these characters are Russian. Also, the dialogue may be inept but it serves a purpose and half way through the film it ceases to be repetitive. The screenplay gains focus and shifts things into a higher gear.
Then there are the performances. Honestly, they’re outstanding. Ed Harris is an excellent actor and this type of independently produced film doesn’t deserve the type of performance that it gets out of him. And the same goes for Fichtner (who’s turning into a terrific leading man) and Duchovny. I’ve never seen Duchovny really “act” but he does so here and he plays his character very well and with conviction. It’s safe to say that the performances carry the film and they lift it from the conventional “I watched it on TV, on a unknown channel, at 2 AM” to “this film is a good rental”. It may not be worth coughing up the $12-$14 that it would cost to watch it in the theatres but it’s definitely worth a rental.
Phantom is a good film for its outstanding performances, its use of atmosphere, its attention to detail, and its consistent use of tension. It feeds on that tension and wouldn’t work without it. Lastly, if anyone claims that this is a clumsy, blatant rip-off of Red October, all I have to say as a rebuttal is that there’s a Korean film titled Phantom: The Submarine (1999) and it has the same plot as this one. So, chill.
The Special Features are an Audio Commentary; Facing the Apocalypse: Making Phantom; The Real Phantom; Jeff Rona: Scoring Phantom; “An Ocean Away” Music Video; and Sneak Peek.