“Phantom,” which is inspired by largely mysterious, but believed-to-be-true events, runs into a very significant problem right off the bat. It takes place almost entirely on a Soviet submarine and all of its inhabitants are Russian, yet all the actors, or all the major players at least, are American.
Despite an opening title card sequence that sets the time and place in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it takes some time to realize that these characters aren’t actually American, partially because nobody even tries to hide it, seemingly forgetting that they’re, you know, actors and should be capable of crafting a character of a different ethnicity. This is just one of many blunders in “Phantom,” a tepid thriller filled with empty dialogue and cliched plot turns.
Ed Harris plays Demi, the captain of the vessel, and his mission is vague, written on a piece of paper and locked inside a safe onboard. Additionally, he has a few straggler technicians that have been sanctioned to accompany them for reasons unknown, the leader being Bruni, played by David Duchovny. Bruni is the forceful type and demands he follow his orders, despite a chain of command that places Demi at the top. Eventually, Bruni’s sinister intentions become clear and the boat splits into two sanctions. An underwater battle is about to ensue and the victor will either save the world or destroy it.
“Phantom” sounds exciting. A war between friendlies turned against each other inside of an underwater metal tomb full of claustrophobic spaces and unforeseen consequences should lead to the type of tension that causes nail biters to file them down until their fingers start bleeding, but such is not the case here.
Up until the final sequence of events when the tension is admittedly palpable, the most exciting thing that happens is a slight bump with a cargo ship. Such an event is surely dangerous in real life, but it doesn’t make for a particularly exciting movie.
Perhaps aware of this, the filmmakers give Demi a haunted past, a past that is burdened with bad memories and difficult decisions. This gives way to hallucinations that recall that troubled past. There are fires, floods, collisions, blood and more, most of which make sense given that these moments he’s recollecting took place during a doomed expedition, even if they are superfluous to the actual story at hand. Now, the ghost dog that jumps out at him, where that came from is anybody’s guess.
Due to some surprisingly committed performances, particularly from the great Ed Harris, Phantom is at its best when it isn’t talking. The actors say more with their eyes than they ever do with their words, especially given that much of it is drab Navy dialogue that all but the already underwater initiated will find boring.
There’s lots of plotting courses, ordering dives, readying the weapons, reaching thermocline and more and most of this dialogue is yelled into the intercom to the crew rather than spoken through character interaction. This type of dialogue will fail to resonate with most and it doesn’t do much to help craft compelling characters either. Furthermore, the editing of the film fails to keep its place consistent, particularly in the placement of certain characters in relation to others.
When one quietly sneaking sailor rises out of a cover in the floor to an imposing boot, one naturally believes he’s accidentally stumbled onto an enemy, but in reality, he’s come full circle and is back with his comrades. To make matters worse, most of these characters are extraneous in nature, so it’s difficult enough to separate them into good and bad camps, much less keep track of what they’re doing and where they’re heading.
“Phantom” is a mess. At times, particularly during the final sequences (at least before its hokey ending that plays up the crew’s sacrifices), it’s an enjoyable mess, but its few positives certainly don’t outweigh its general sloppiness. Submarine thrillers aren’t exactly oversaturating the market, so if that’s your cup of tea, I suppose “Phantom” will scratch that itch, but everybody else can steer clear knowing they aren’t missing much.