Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. I confess that movies about submarines are not my cup of brine. A new one called Phantom is no exception. Worse, it’s about a Russian submarine. To be honest, I can rarely recall any film, on any subject, that made less sense. I found so much of it incomprehensible on so many levels that I’m not even sure I can tell you why.
Ed Harris is always worth watching, even when he mumbles, which he does a lot here. At least he doesn’t mutter in a Russian accent. Nor do any of the other hale, hearty (and unmistakably all-American) actors, all playing Russian sailors who look and sound like they just graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, but who are still desperately in need of subtitles. Of course, the confusion is due in no small part to a screenplay (by Todd Robinson, who also lamely directed) that is both labyrinthine and under-explained. Claiming to be based on actual facts surrounding the disappearance of a Cold War Soviet ballistic missile submarine in 1968 that has never been explained by either the U.S. or Russian governments, the film opens on a Soviet naval base (played by San Diego) where renowned Captain Demi (Mr. Harris) returns from 76 days at sea, haunted by nightmares, suffering from epilepsy and close to retirement. Suddenly his squadron command insists that he accept one final farewell assignment, piloting a derelict boat on a top-secret classified mission of mystery. The vessel is archaic and ready for scrap, an insult to a man of his fame and record of accomplishment, but it’s one of the last positions open in the shrinking Russian Navy, so he takes it. “You know what they call an old boat captain without a boat?” he asks. “Just another drunk.” But Demi is not just any old drunk. To the horror of his comrades at sea, he hates vodka.
Joining the 86-man crew on this mission to the unknown is a rogue KGB agent (David Duchovny) who pretends to be on some sort of photographic research project. The mission is clandestine enough, but things really get suspicious when the captain and his first officer (William Fichtner) discover that the new members of the crew have no military records. Others are listed as dead, and Mr. Duchovny and his followers are trained assassins. It would be nice to know what’s going on and why, but the script, which consists primarily of operations instructions, is practically indecipherable—made even more difficult because so much of the dialogue rarely rises above a whisper and is drowned out by cacophonous blasts of steam, explosions and music, barked over the P.A. system: “23 above—10 meters.” “Port starboard motors all stops—silent motor ahead, standard.” “Commence system testing of classified equipment for operational readiness—maintaining alert status!” “Salt water in the batteries makes chlorine gas—from the periscope depth raise the snorkel, prepare to ventilate!” Get the picture?
It takes hours to figure out that the Soviets have chosen Mr. Harris because they are convinced he will fail and never return. Fail at what? Why are they punishing a decorated Naval hero? And what dire plans do the rogue KGB agents have in store for American submarines as they head for the Pacific? As for the title, it seems that any warship equipped with a nuclear device while disguised as a vessel from another country is called a “phantom.” Thus the villains who strip Mr. Harris of his command and confiscate his vessel plan to turn American technology against us, making it impossible for the U.S. Navy to detect the identity of all enemy subs and consequently force American ships to run around in circles. Huh?
From this preposterous premise, it’s the film that runs around in circles. Believe me, I couldn’t make up an explanation like David Duchovny’s: “Have you heard of an American program called DarkStar? It’s a fully synchronized system of endo-atmospheric antiballistic missiles guided by highly accurate radar. If the Americans launch a first strike, all our land-base missiles will be taken out even before they can be fueled. It’s a radar ray that detonates atomic missiles in the ionosphere—electro-magnetic pulse weapons that can destroy the world.” Who will win? The KGB, with no incentive for peace? Or the captain with nightmares and epileptic seizures, who agrees with the Americans in the importance of the survival of humanity? Anyone for chess?
I don’t care if it’s Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in Run Silent, Run Deep or the vastly more suspenseful German sub thriller Das Boot. There’s not a lot of ground to cover on a submarine set—the camera moves from the captain’s desk to the first mate’s bunk, from the engine room to the men drinking coffee in the mess, all the way to the watch command on the deck above—replete with wheels, valves, dials and shots through the wet lens of a periscope. Not much a set designer can do with that many pipes and metal folding chairs. Ed Harris is good when you can hear him, the miscast but interesting David Duchovny does a great job of exuding underwater poison as the monster who wants to cause a nuclear war, and a fine supporting cast including Johnathon Schaech, Jason Beghe, Lance Henriksen and Sean Patrick Flanery adds testosterone and brio. It’s not enough. To sustain tension, you need the kind of claustrophobic camera movement, high-strung talk and gritty character development that are badly needed in any submarine movie and are sadly missing in Phantom.
Running Time 97 minutes
Written and Directed by
Starring Ed Harris, Julian Adams
and David Duchovny