Despite having recognizable stars like David Duchovny and Ed Harris attached, 'Phantom' came and went in theaters earlier this year without making much more than a whisper in terms of box office. BoxOfficeMojo.com notes that in the submarine genre it ranks seventh, which isn't too bad until you realize that there's only eight movies in the list. 'Phantom' isn't going to be remembered like 'The Hunt for Red October' or 'Crimson Tide.' Curiously though, it may have a tiny bit more in common with what made those movies successful than you might think.
Now, don't get me wrong, 'Phantom' still has a long way to go to be compared to the classic submarine-set thrillers, but it does get some things right, which at least makes it worth watching.
'Phantom' focuses on the story of a Russian submarine armed with a nuclear missile that went "missing" during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As you might suspect, this would be an alarming state of affairs during a period of the Cold War where tensions were at an all-time high. Many people thought that World War III was right around the corner. The fact that there was a missing Russian submarine with a nuke wandering the oceans lent credence to that fear.
Demi (Harris) is the captain of sub in question. A stalwart patriot if ever there was one, although he's haunted by a past command that ended in tragedy for a few members of his crew. Standing steadfastly as his first mate is Alex (William Fichtner) who accepts his captain's faults and is fiercely loyal. The operations of their mission are kept securely confidential. Two shadowy KGB agents guard the secrets until the crew is safely out to sea. Bruni (Duchovny) is the head KGB agent, who dispenses tidbits of information that only serve to frustrate Demi. A situation is brewing.
Like the best submarine movies, 'Phantom' accurately portrays the claustrophobic surroundings. This isn't the type of sub we're used to seeing in movies. This is a Russian Navy relic. As Alex puts it, "We're going to need an archeologist to start this thing." The surroundings are noticeably cramped, which easily puts people on edge. The tension slowly builds as Demi begins to realize that Bruni may indeed have alternate, more sinister plans.
Suffering from a low budget, 'Phantom' can't quite recreate the masterful cinematography of a movie like 'Crimson Tide.' At times the entire movie feels like it's lacking any sort of cinematic depth. A look that's more consistent with made-for-TV movies. The underwater CG scenes don't fare much better. As subs stalk each other and torpedoes explode, the effects are much hokier than I'm sure the filmmakers intended them to be.
Since we're not quite sure what actually happened on that sub during the time that it disappeared this is obviously just a guess. While the script is fairly one-dimensional, seasoned actors like Harris, Duchovny, and Fichtner all make the best with what they've been given, which is all you can ask of them to do. They're able to carry the needed tension and escalating madness, even though the script is rather flat most of the time.
'Phantom' excels when it's focused on the battle between Demi and Bruni. Thankfully, the filmmakers didn't try to complicate matters by having American actors struggle through Russian accents. Some may find it off putting, but I found it refreshing. All too often filmmakers find themselves trying so hard for perceived authenticity that they don't realize their actors are unable to accurately portray hard-to-perfect accents (Harrison Ford in 'K-19: Widowmaker' is a perfect example of unintended distraction). While the production design lacks the money to really make the visuals pop, 'Phantom' may be worth a look for those interested in historical fiction.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a 20th Century Fox release. It comes in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with one 25GB single-layer Blu-ray Disc. There's a UltraViolet Digital Copy code included. The back of the case states that it's a Region A release.
As mentioned above, the film suffers from the all-too-familiar flatness that usually permeates lower budget digitally filmed movies. The 1080p presentation, for the most part, offers a clear somewhat darkly muted picture, but there are times where the effects of a mini-budget show through.
Since the movie is set within the bowels of a cramped submarine, there isn't much in the way of bright lighting. It's a shadowy affair, punctuated by the yellow interior lights of the sub. Black areas appear flat much of the time. Shadows aren't as well delineated as we're used to seeing. Minor banding can be spotted in a handful of conversation scenes where faces are surrounded by shadows with varying degrees of darkness. The underwater scenes are home to even more banding as the subs cut through black water.
Faces do feature some nice detail, but there are many times that the harsh yellow lighting scrubs it away. The wear and tear of the antique sub is the highlight of the fine detail. Rust, scratches, dents are all visible. It's a good-with-the-bad type of presentation, which is to be expected for a movie with these types of limitations.
The clanking and creaking of the sub's hull echoes through the sound field. The rear channels pick up the noises adding depth to the mix. Dialogue is presented cleanly through the center channel. Torpedo explosions are given some nice accompanying low-end bass.
The slight annoyance with 'Phantom's mix seems like it's all or nothing. When the action is heavy, the mix gets really loud and then quiets way down for conversational scenes. The balance sounded a little out of whack at times. Other than that this is an efficiently mixed audio track for a submarine movie.
'Phantom' surprised me with its two leads' ability to carry a rather flat screenplay across the finish line. There's an adequate amount of claustrophobic madness added in for good measure, which reminded me of other confined movies like 'Sunshine.' A seriously corny ending doesn't help matters, but, if you're looking for a movie that's off the beaten path and still stars some recognizable actors, then 'Phantom' is worth a look.