Phantom is a slow, awkward, unrewarding Cold War drama that claims to be based by actual events but relies almost entirely on conjecture, wild rumor, and utter fantasy. Both the setting and the focus of the plot is the K-129 Soviet submarine, which sank mysteriously in the Pacific Ocean on March 8, 1968. The wreck would remain undiscovered until 1974, when the United States attempted to raise it as part of a covert operation known as Project Azorian. To this day, specifics regarding its sinking remain unknown, and the U.S. has kept all files, photographs, and videotaped evidence closed to the public. Even its exact location in the Pacific continues to be an official secret, although the claims of several sources strongly suggest the wreck site to be around 600 nautical miles north of the Midway Atoll.
The inspiration for the plot, not mentioned in either the closing credits or the film’s IMDb webpage, is Kenneth Sewell’s 2005 book Red Star Rogue – The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S. According to Sewell, the crew of the K-129 took part in a rogue Soviet operation (which involved the KGB) to mimic a Chinese submarine, launch a ballistic missile at Pearl Harbor, and ultimately ignite a war between the U.S. and China. He goes on to say that the K-129 sank as the result of one of its three missiles exploding while it was being prepped for launch. Sewell has never been able to support his claims with any real evidence, and many official sources have been able to undermine his position. From my layman’s perspective, it sounds like nothing more than a half-baked conspiracy theory.
Some may take issue with the fact that Russian characters are played by an almost entirely American cast, and that English is spoken all throughout the film. Not just English, but heavily colloquial English – the kind of English that only Americans are likely to understand. To the best of my recollection, no one even attempts to fake an accent. I might have overlooked this approach if writer/director Todd Robinson had at the very least established his characters’ Russian origins at the start of the film, and then found a creative way to have the language transition to English. Consider The Hunt for Red October, which began with characters speaking Russian, or Valkyrie, which began in German; in both cases, audiences were made aware of the point at which the language shifted to English, which made suspension of disbelief possible.
The mood of this movie is about as funereal as Tommy Lee Jones appeared to be at the Golden Globes. It stars Ed Harris as Demi, a Soviet Navy captain nearing the end of his disappointing career, having failed to live up to the standards set by his legendary father. As the result of a brain trauma he suffered some time in the past, he has semi-annual epileptic seizures. He’s appointed by his superior, the oxygen-dependant Markov (Lance Henriksen), to command a soon-to-be-retired submarine for a mission shrouded in secrecy. As the sub leaves its docking port, it passes by Markov’s window; Markov appears to be saluting the sub, but he’s actually holding a gun to his head, and he promptly blows his brains out. As to whether or not Demi witnessed this, I’m not sure. As to why Markov made such a drastic decision and went ahead with it, I’m also not sure.
The entire first half of the movie is constructed in such a way that it truly seems as if nothing is going to happen. The actors are there, and they’re delivering their lines, and they’re giving decent performances, and yet we have no idea what purpose they’re serving simply because the plot lacks any semblance of trajectory. All we know is that the atmosphere is perpetually tense. This is in great part because Demi has on board with him a KGB agent named Bruni (David Duchovny), who skulks around the ship with his flunkies, oozing ulterior motives from every pore. A lot of orders are made, and the sub makes plenty of nautical maneuvers, and there are several scenes involving torpedoes and other subs and passing ships, but we’re at a loss to explain what it’s all building towards. By the time all is revealed and everything is explained, the film transitions into an action thriller, which at least made it more fun to look at.
All leads to a final scene that’s not only glaringly inconsistent in tone with the rest of the film but is also so artificially sentimental that I had to stifle outbursts of incredulous laughter. It’s the kind of ending that one resorts to when all other avenues have been exhausted, save for the infuriating revelation that it was all a dream. Given this scene, and given the almost complete lack of narrative and characteristic focus, I’m not convinced anyone involved knew what to make of Phantom. What did Robinson believe he had when he finished the screenplay? Did he even finish it? Remakes are typically made and released several decades after an original, but in this case, I think a new version should be put into production as soon as possible. Any potential it has as an engaging story depends on a cast and crew with an actual vision in mind.
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