What a difference a near decade makes. Back at the beginning of millennium, Kathryn Bigelow was seen as something of a failure. After a terrific stint in the '80s and '90s with mainstream hits like Near Dark and Point Break, she hit a snag on her way to blockbuster acceptance with the ambitious but ultimately underwhelming Strange Days. By 2002, however, her fortunes had truly turned. The Weight of Water was an shoulder shrug effort that no one saw, and the true life tale of a Soviet nuclear sub and its courageous crew - K-19: The Widowmaker became one of the year's certified bombs. Costing well over $100 million to make, it barely grossed a third of that. Fast forward to 2010, and Bigelow now holds an Academy Award for the justifiably great Hurt Locker. Not only is she the first female filmmaker ever to earn such accolade, but it's a particularly satisfying creative comeback. A look back at the plodding, unappealing K-19 is all the proof you need of such a shimmering recent return to form. It may be one of the biggest reversals of filmmaking fortune ever.
It's 1961 and the Soviet Union is desperate to wins the arms race with the United States. Even though it is barely seaworthy, Communist Party officials want their latest submarine, K-19, in the Atlantic and running drills immediately. When Captain Mikhail Polenin refuses such a quick turnaround agenda, he is replaced by loyal Navy career man Captain Alexei Vostrikov. Mandated to serve together, they set sail with an cautious if experienced crew, an unclear mission, and an untested nuclear reactor expert, Vadim Radtchenko. After successfully moving under the Antarctic ice and test firing a missile, the K-19 is ordered to a position 70 miles off the US coast. On the way, their reactor cooling system fails, putting all the men in danger. Polenin wants to abandon ship and ask the Americans for help. Never wanting to give into the enemy, Radtchenko wants to wait for Moscow's help. With any possible rescue days away, the entire ship is doomed. It will be up to both Captains to find a viable solution - or die trying.
It seems odd that a director known for action like Kathryn Bigelow would choose a project like K-19: The Widowmaker. After all, the script by Christopher Kyle decides that tension and suspense are best created when actors sit around talking, not when fists fly or aggression mounts. This is an insular story, taking place in one boat during a particularly hairy maiden voyage. But as in other works with a similar theme - Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boot, Tony Scott's Crimson Tide - there is a way to make comrade on comrade confrontations sparkle with energy. Bigelow doesn't do that. Instead, she lets miscast superstar Harrison Ford showboat, gets Liam Neeson to play passive sympathetic nobility, and then tosses in some dated CG seascapes to make everything appear epic. The submarine's animated look is sloppy and obvious. Tron had more convincing mechanisms at times. Even worse, nothing much is done with the boat. It dives. It surfaces. It breaks through some ice. It sits around crippled, unable to move thanks to its own low tech issues. The whole nuclear element is indeed a smokescreen. Aside from some severe cases of radiation sickness (and a couple of jokes about their junk), K-19's world destroying facets are left for a title card at the beginning of the film.
This is the problem with fact-based narratives. The story of K-19 is true, and as a result, Bigelow and the bunch seem overly reverent. Sure, liberties are taken here and there, unnecessary truths tossed aside from more shots of men diving through small round metal portholes, but none of the changes seem to make things better. It's just talking, talking, and more talking. Ford is really a sore thumb here, sticking out like a middle aged man at a MiIey Cyrus concert. We are so used to him as Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan, that to buy him as a card carrying Communist with anti-American issues is a difficult purchase indeed. One has to remember the context here. K-19 arrived in 2002, and Ford was still a fairly hot commodity. Air Force One from five years before even had him playing an ass-kicking President of the US or A. To see him suddenly put on the Boris brogue and scream about the Motherland is just antithetical to everything we know about his acting persona. Neeson can pull it off - he's been everything from Rob Roy to Oskar Schindler. But not Ford - like his name, he's as Red, White and Blue as film stars come.
Because of how indebted it is to detail, because of its desire to sacrifice drama for the sake of staying somewhat true to its source, K-19: The Widowmaker turns from interesting to inert. Long passages of passive exposition toddle by, each one overdosing on the perceived import of what is happening and the need to repeatedly remind the audience of same. Even at the end, when we see the outcome of the military tribunal and learn why the story was kept so secret (the fall of the Berlin Wall helped loosen lips, supposedly), Bigelow won't shut it down. Instead, we fast forward to see Ford and Neesom in hokey old age make-up, a reunion of sorts indicating how brave and honor-bound everyone was. Huh? Most film fans would call this padding - and perhaps that is K-19's biggest flaw. Instead of showing us the stakes, instead of inventing ways to get information across without having to resort to title cards, text interludes, and endless reams of dialogue, the experience would be much more fun. As it stands, K-19: The Widowmaker has good intentions. Sadly, said motives don't translate to anything remotely engaging or entertaining.
Studios need to learn something ASAP - old school CG looks just awful when ported over to Blu-ray. Every fake facet and edge enhanced element of a shot - say a submarine cruising under massive ice flows - looks about as realistic as a mangled miniature from the 1950s. That's the problem with an otherwise crystal clear 2.35:1 1080p transfer. Since the color scheme is geared toward metallic grays and blacks, as well as the occasional blue and red, there is really nothing that leaps out at the eye. Skintones are often ashen, but that appears to be part of Bigelow's aesthetic approach. Once the radiation sickness hits, we get a nice level of nasty flesh wounds and skin sores. There is some grain, and those pesky faked F/X shots to worry about. Otherwise, the image is actually pretty good.
The loseless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix uses some interesting sonic choices to give the overall aural presence a kind of subconscious claustrophobia. You feel the submarine is underwater, sense the cramped quarters and thin metal hull separating the crew from death by drowning. During the reactor repairs sequences, there is an urgency in the soundtrack that the Blu-ray remaster handles brilliantly. All the dialogue is easily discernible, and the musical score doesn't overdose on silly Soviet bombast. Of course, there are times when all dynamism is lost, when the sound suffers from a lack of true immersion. Still, for the most part, the tech spec presentation is pretty damn good.
Oddly enough, this Paramount Blu-ray release is packed with added content (some titles of late have been practically bare bones). First off, there is a nice commentary with Bigelow and her cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. Going into lengthy discussions about lighting the inside of a sub and maintaining depth when the abundance of metal wants to turns visuals flat, it's a technical take of the film peppered with a few juicing behind the scenes anecdotes. There is also a decent Making-of that doesn't stray too far over into studio EPK material. Three featurettes flesh out the production, offering us looks at the make-up techniques used, the various vessels employed, and the attention to period and military details. Finally, there is a theatrical trailer. While all of these bonus features are insightful and interesting, they can't salvage the less than satisfying film they are supplementing.
K-19's history as a major cinematic stinker is not without reason. Though independently financed (by National Geographic, no less), it barely recouped a third of its costs. When added to Bigelow's already tenuous stake in Hollywood, her mishandling of Harrison Ford was the soon to be exiled icing on the cake. Luckily, a few years later, the filmmaker let her gender -and her genius - do the talking. Still, K-19: The Widowmaker is a tough movie to get through, earning a Rent It because of its inability to completely thrill or entertain. Sure, there are isolated moments when the movie finds a way to dig through all the dialogue and detail to deliver something akin to fun, but like the former USSR itself, joy among Russians is as rare as a meal without vodka (apologies in advance for the gross cultural overgeneralizations). Kathryn Bigelow has sure come a long way since this stinker. Luckily, she found a way to keep this film from burying her career completely.