Review: Phantom (2013)
Editor’s Notes: Phantom opened in wide release this past Friday. If you’ve already seen the film we’d love to hear your thoughts on it, or if you’re looking forward to seeing it this weekend, please tell us in the comments section below.
In The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan, 1990), we are told that there are only two reasons a sub would go rogue: one is to defect, the other is to start a war. In Red October, it was reason number one and in Phantom it is reason number two. Phantom, written and directed by Todd Robinson, should have been a nail-biter of a story. Set in 1968 and purportedly based on actual events, it tells the story of a soon-to-be retired Captain of the Soviet Navy, Demi (Ed Harris) put to sea one last time in his very old, soon-to-be-decommissioned first command, an antiquated submarine. He and his crew are to put out immediately, despite being only three weeks into their three month leave. His senior staff is comprised of his First Officer Alex (William Fichtner), the Political Officer Pavlov (Johnathon Schaech), the doctor Semak (Jason Beghe) and an unspecified officer Sasha (Jason Grey-Stanford, who played Randy on Monk). Also aboard for this mission are Bruni (David Duchovny) and Garin (Derek Magyar) who are part of a division testing a new piece of equipment: The Phantom. The test of this is so secret they don’t even tell Demi what it is, why it’s there or what it does. Enter: Conflict.
In The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan, 1990), we are told that there are only two reasons a sub would go rogue: one is to defect, the other is to start a war. In Red October, it was reason number one and in Phantom it is reason number two.
All of this should have created tension and drama, and it would have if the characters would have been anyone we could care about. Robinson tries to make us feel bad for Demi right in the beginning with some awful dialogue between he and Admiral Markov (Lance Henrickson). Demi is tortured by the memory of a command decision that cost the lives of six crew members during his first command. This man has probably ordered more men to their death than he can recall, but these six weigh especially heavily on his mind for some reason. He suffers hallucinations aboard the ship evoking the memory of that fateful first voyage under his command. Thing is, I didn’t care at all. There is no reason for a man this advanced in his career to be afflicted in this manner by something that happened quite a long time prior.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because the entire film is plot and to describe more would not be fair. Suffice it to say that Bruni (Duchovny) takes over the ship when his orders aren’t followed and there is an attempt to regain the ship and Demi realizes that they are not following orders of Command but from an extremely devoted wing of the KGB who is intent to start a war with the U.S. to be done with the Cold War once and for all with the U.S.S.R. as the victors by making the U.S. think it is China who is attacking, not Soviet Russia.
Again, with all that going on and with very high stakes (no less than World War III), the film should be tense, gripping and thrilling. Alas, due to cliché-ridden dialogue, leaden pacing and no real character to care about, the film goes nowhere and even caused some unintentional laughter from the audience during some of the particularly dreadful scenes. Robinson seems to think that the weight of the words should fall to the actors and not the writer. The actors do put their best feet forward and are the sole reason this film is watchable, but give them enough ham-handed scenes and even Ed Harris at his best cannot salvage them. That may not even be the worst part of it, sadly. The entire premise of the film is a cliché, and to not even really try to subvert expectations is just kind of lazy. Sure, he added a mechanism that hasn’t been seen in a sub movie, but everything else is the same as the best sub movies done in the worst way. When a writer fills a cliché with cliché after cliché, we get a turducken of cliché served up with all the expected sides of inner turmoil, loyalty and the misperception of honor. And with all the diving and surfacing and diving and surfacing going on (once even from crush depth all the way up to 10m deep), you’d think someone would have gotten the bends, but that would have slowed the action down even further.
Harris is the high point of the film, but all the actors perform yeoman’s service here. Fichtner is good as always, and so is Duchovny but he has done over-obsessed to the point of mania before and it was called The X-Files and it was good. There was only so much these actors could do with this material and Harris is the best of the bunch. He stands out like an island of credibility in an ocean of uselessness. And even Harris submits to the ubiquity of it all in some truly terrible hand-wrenching scenes when he recounts how bad he feels about what happened in the past. He even cries in front of his men!
There was only so much these actors could do with this material and Harris is the best of the bunch. He stands out like an island of credibility in an ocean of uselessness.
The editing in the picture could have saved it. Sure, the dialogue is bad, but the editing could have raised tension and made the action sequences between the subs (of course there is a sub battle) and the fight to re-take the ship. Instead, we are left with a shop-worn feel to all of it. There is no excitement because the pace just slogs along. The concentration is more on Demi’s turmoil and less on the destruction of the civilized world and that makes the entire film fall flat. Instead of developing the characters through the crisis, Robinson tries to develop his characters in spite of the crisis. The crisis itself is so much of a MacGuffin that not only does the audience not care about it, neither do the characters. Demi is more concerned with the six people that died umpteen years ago than the nuclear missile that will end the world, Alex is super-concerned about Demi leaving only Bruni to care about starting the war. The film limps from scene to scene distancing the audience with each heavy step towards the end. This is even worse when you consider the length is only 97 minutes. A film this short to move as slowly as it does shows a lack of understanding the editing craft.
Robinson as a director is no better than he is as a writer. He and his cinematographer Byron Werner cloak half the face of everyone with a dark past with shadow. What seemed to me at first to be an effort to portray realistic lighting quickly became a symbol of what these characters were hiding. The realization came to me after Demi reveals his past and is from then on shot with full light on his face. Thinking back after the film, I realized that most of the characters did not have the shadow effect on them, because they had nothing to hide. This attempt at symbolism would have been bad enough, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. Each time an actor is going to break through the corniness of the dialogue, Robinson is there to make sure that doesn’t happen by getting them to overplay some part of the scene. He uses a static camera where a moving one would have served to heighten the tension and make the viewer feel as if something were happening. By allowing the camera to just sit there, we are forced to pay attention to his dialogue which brings the film down.
Watching this film will remind viewers of other, better submarine films like the previously mentioned The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide (Scott, 1995) and even Das Boot (Peterson, 1981) and as a result make us wish we were watching one of them instead. Robinson pulls parts from each of them and even gives Tony Scott a ‘very special thanks’ credit. I pined for Scott’s off the wall, impossible staging or McTiernan’s steady build to a riveting climax or Peterson’s terrifying quiet but Robinson managed to copy all of them without capturing any of their power. The film just kind of hangs there, balanced precariously on the performances of Harris, Fichtner and Duchovny and ultimately crumbles under the weight of its own ambition.