I love submarine movies, and I can’t figure out why they’re so rare. They’re inherently claustrophobic, you don’t need many sets, there’s fantastic use of sound and silence, actors have room to deliver terrific performances, and if the sub is equipped with a nuclear warhead, then the stakes can’t be higher. What’s not to like? Submarines also have a great sense of mystery since there’s no way to see what’s outside once the ship is submerged. Writer-director Todd Robinson tries to tap into that mystery in his new film, Phantom, but he stumbles over his clumsy attempts to hide his characters’ pasts and motives. Thankfully, removed from the mystery, Phantom is a tense submarine picture featuring strong performances, and an understanding of the genre’s dramatic assets.
The film opens by telling us that while the Cuban Missile Crisis may have brought us within feet of global nuclear war, the story we’re about to see “brought us within inches.” Set in May 1968, a Soviet diesel submarine is tasked with carrying out a secret scientific mission. Captain Demi (Ed Harris) is close to retirement, but is assigned to command his old vessel. With his trusted first officer Alex (William Fichtner) and crew at his side, Demi follows the mission but senses the ominous intentions of the special project’s leader, Bruni (David Duchovny). Once they’re away at sea, the revelation about the project’s true intent raises serious moral issues for the captain, and causes him to come into direct conflict with Bruni.
Robinson’s attempt to couch Demi’s story in mystery isn’t a bad idea, but the filmmaker never can seem to figure out an effective way to make the mystery intriguing or particularly shocking. Before we even really get to know Demi, we’re already hearing references to a disastrous mission in his past and retaliation on the part of his superiors. From there, we see poorly-shot, horror-style flashbacks that hint at what went wrong before dry exposition finally tells us Demi’s dark secrets. There’s nothing wrong with having a mysterious protagonist, but Robinson struggles to execute the set-up and the pay-off.
But removed from weaving Demi’s back story, Phantom is a taut thriller. It’s got everything you could want from a solid submarine flick: the cat-and-mouse game between submarines, inner turmoil onboard, loyalties divided, and people saying stuff like “50 degrees down bubble!”* The story is further helped by the commanding performances from Harris as the tired but canny captain, and from Fincher as his devoted first officer who must decide if he’s willing to get his own command at the cost of selling out his friend. By establishing effective characters, Robinson is able to further branch out and look at the larger issues stemming from the nature of war.
Phantom is a movie that never could have been made during the Cold War just as Das Boot couldn’t have been made during World War II. During wartime, popular entertainment has almost no room for compassion, but these movies do a wonderful job of humanizing our foes by putting them in circumstances that reveal them as people rather than just “the enemy”. When Das Boot ends, you’re hit with the realization, “Oh, shit. I was rooting for Nazis the whole time.” Phantom doesn’t land pack as much of a punch, but it still taps into the overall sentiment that these kinds of movies can provide.
I may simply have a soft spot for a film like Phantom. Robinson understands the genre, and I admire his attempt to push it further even thought the mystery aspect doesn’t pan out. When a film like Phantom comes along and it’s done right, it’s another reminder of how much the submarine film has to offer. Filmmakers, studios, and most importantly, audiences, should embrace what can be an easily exciting and surprisingly thoughtful time at the movies.
*I’m waiting for a submarine sailor to show up in the comments and tell me that 50 degrees down bubble is impossible. I would reply that I don’t even know what “down bubble” means, but I love the term.