Phantom (United States, 2013)

February 27, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Phantom Poster

With a title like Phantom, one might easily assume that this movie is a ghost story. In actuality, however, it's a submarine thriller loosely based on actual events from 1968. The tale told by Phantom falls into the realm of "historical fiction." Although Todd Robinson's screenplay excerpts facts from the established record of the sinking of the Soviet sub K-129, the interpretation of why the boat sank is based in large part on controversial theories advanced by Dr. John P. Craven and Kenneth Sewell. Much of what's contained in Phantom is at best speculative and at worst completely made-up. But, regardless of the accuracy, it makes for compelling viewing. Phantom is one of the best films of a lousy early 2013 release roster.

It's interesting to note that the submarine genre is one of the most reliable when it comes to quality motion pictures. There have been some great ones (Das Boot and Run Silent, Run Deep come to mind) and a host of good ones, but the list of mediocre-to-bad examples is slim. Phantom, while neither high profile nor accompanied by a pedigree, is a solid entry. The primary strengths of the submarine movie - the powerful sense of claustrophobia and the tension resulting from life-and-death battles that occur between half-blind opponents - are effectively handled in Phantom.

The movie is set in 1968 and most of it plays out within the confines of a Soviet diesel submarine on its last mission. It's an antiquated boat, made obsolete by the new fleet of nuclear powered vessels. The captain, Demi (Ed Harris), is looking at the end of his undistinguished career. He has spent a lifetime trying to live up to the reputation of his father, one of the engineers of Soviet submarine warfare, with little success. His XO, Alex (William Fichtner), is in line for a command of his own once this mission is completed. The third key man on board is Party Officer Pavlov (Johnathon Schaech), the individual responsible for making sure that socialist ideals and attitudes are properly adhered to by all hands. On this particular voyage, KGB officer Bruni (David Duchovny) is on board to test a prototype top secret device. He is accompanied by several armed and fanatical associates and, when push comes to shove, he places himself at the top of the command structure, above Demi.

As the submarine sinks below the surface, various storylines begin to play out. The first involves the tension between Bruni and Demi that eventually erupts into an open conflict. Then there's the cat-and-mouse game of underwater battles as the sub has a series of encounters. Finally, there's Bruni's end-game: start a nuclear war between the United States and China where the USSR would be the ultimate winner. All of this is resolved satisfactorily in a little over 90 minutes.

The all-male cast is comprised primarily of character actors. Ed Harris plays to his strengths - the solid, reliable lead whose character flaws don't diminish the viewer's ability to relate to him. William Fichtner, who can shift back and forth between wearing black hats and white hats, is credible as the film's least flawed individual. David Duchovny quickly erases associations with Fox Mulder and Hank Moody by showing that he's more than capable of playing a detestable character if required. Although the film's verisimilitude is hurt a little by the decision to use English dialogue, at least no attempt is made to incorporate fake Russian accents. That might have turned a serious production into one that was unintentionally campy.

The screenplay credited to writer/director Todd Robinson isn't without its flaws. It's confusing in the early scenes as we are exposed to a massive exposition dump setting up the situation. Some of the sub action occurs a little too quickly, robbing tension that would accompany a slower build-up. When it comes to white-knuckle suspense and edge-of-the-seat heart palpitations, Phantom doesn't come close to Das Boot. But, although its factual basis may be deeply flawed, the movie is well constructed and the workmanlike execution held my attention.

Phantom (United States, 2013)

Director: Todd Robinson
Cast: Ed Harris, David Duchovny, William Fichtner, Lance Henriksen, Johnathon Schaech, Jason Beghe
Screenplay: Todd Robinson
Cinematography: Byron Werner
Music: Jeff Rona
U.S. Distributor: RCR Media Group
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2013-03-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1