Cold War submarine drama Phantom went relatively unnoticed in theaters despite boasting Ed Harris and David Duchovny as leads. Loosely based on true events, Phantom reveals the final dangerous mission of Soviet Navy sub K-129, which sank to the bottom of the Pacific after an internal struggle and possible unauthorized nuclear missile launch near Pearl Harbor. Director Todd Robinson stretches his small budget with a very convincing submarine set, but Phantom fails to create much suspense or compelling drama. The showdown between Dochovny's KGB agent and Harris' aging captain is undercooked, as is the reveal about the sub's true mission, and Phantom ultimately squanders its interesting premise with a stolid narrative.
Demi (Harris), a veteran submarine captain in the Soviet Navy, is given the opportunity by the top brass to lead one more mission despite a previous accident aboard one of Demi's subs. Demi is informed, in no uncertain terms, that he can either retire without honor or sail this ship, and Demi chooses the latter. Once aboard, Demi is greeted by a chilly Bruni (Duchovny), a KGB agent, who refuses to disclose the mission's parameters, which upsets the ship's executive officer (William Fichtner). Once at sea, Demi realizes Bruni and his cronies won't be taking a passive role in the mission, and this stress begins triggering his flashbacks from an earlier tragedy.
The plight of Soviet submarine K-129 is not something most people - including myself - were taught in history class, and details of the ship's sinking and related events were not readily disclosed by the Soviet Union. Apparently, radioactive material was discovered in oil near the ship's final resting place in the Pacific, suggesting a missile launch, but details are sketchy about the ship's purpose in that area, as well as its previous collision with a U.S. submarine. Phantom surmises that an internal power struggle between Capt. Demi and Bruni, following a shadowy KGB objective, caused crew deaths, dangerous wartime maneuvers and the ship's ultimate demise.
This little-known bit of history is ripe for exploration, but Phantom never comes together. The drama is almost too restrained, as if the filmmakers wanted to stick closely to an unknown truth instead of taking dramatic license and creating a better film. I'm all for sticking closely to the real events, but most of what we know about the K-129 is deduction and conjecture anyway. The KGB objective is not unrealistic, but the ship's experimental technology is both dubious and unexplained in the film. Bruni keeps the captain in the dark about his intentions, constantly threatening to expose Demi's mental instability, but this showdown never heats up. A power struggle on a nuclear submarine implies danger, but Phantom never explores this past the surface level.
Actors Harris and Duchovny are fine here, though the interesting decision to have the actors speak in American rather than Russian accents is initially surprising. The limited budget forces Robinson to shoot most action from inside the submarine, and there are many scenes of the ship's crew reacting to outside forces that are only briefly rendered. The movie's 98 minutes pass relatively quickly, but nothing that happened raised my pulse. The human drama is dull, the wartime aspects are weak, and sea sickness seemed the most pressing danger.
The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is decent, and, while detail and texture are certainly HD quality, they are never especially impressive. The dingy confines of the ship mean colors are subdued, but skin tones are accurate. Black crush is not much of an issue, but blacks do occasionally exhibit a blue/grey tint. There's some increased noise in darker scenes, but I saw no signs of digital manipulation.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack does a nice job compartmentalizing all the sounds heard aboard a submerged warship. The creeks and groans of breathing metal can be heard from the surround speakers, and wartime action results in some nice surround effects with subwoofer response. Dialogue is clear and balanced appropriately with these effects and the film's score. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
Fox includes an UltraViolet digital copy of Phantom. The Audio Commentary by Todd Robinson and Ed Harris is often more entertaining and informative than the film. Facing the Apocalypse: The Making of Phantom (12:58/HD) features interviews with the cast and crew, and The Real Phantom (6:03/HD) reveals what details are known about the Soviet ship partially raised from the ocean floor by the CIA. Finally, there's Jeff Rona: Scoring Phantom (3:00/HD) and "An Ocean Away" Music Video (2:54/HD).
The suggestion that a Soviet submarine may have fired a nuclear missile from the waters near Pearl Harbor is frightening, but Phantom is never as interesting as its subject matter. Loosely based on a real Soviet submarine that sank in the Pacific, Phantom suggests a power struggle between a Navy captain and a KGB agent nearly led to nuclear war. Ed Harris and David Duchovny head the showdown in Todd Robinson's turgid drama that never builds much tension. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.