Reviewed by Ian Forbes
When it comes to choosing to see a film, there are a number of factors that can greatly influence my decision. I’ve always been fascinated by submarines, enjoy a good story about the Cold War maybe more than the next guy, and will happily watch most movies featuring Ed Harris and William Fichtner. That Phantom combines all of those aspects and was also filmed in my hometown of San Diego meant that taking the time out to attend a screening was a no-brainer. Of course, the big question would be if it could live up to its potential.
First off, this isn’t some big budget Hollywood tent pole event so while the filmmakers were able to shoot onboard a real submarine, many of the action scenes look a little too much like toys in the bathtub (I’m exaggerating somewhat but we’ve all been spoiled with expensive miniatures and CGI). Also, I hope you can get past the notion that while everyone in the movie is supposed to be Russian, no one speaks with an accent. I found myself constantly distracted by this, or completely forgetting they were Soviets until some mention of the Communist agenda was discussed. This may be a deal-breaker for some people and I wouldn’t blame them, though I did my best to stay focused.
The other key distraction is an ending which can really only be described as schmaltzy. Obviously, I can’t in good conscience spoil what that means but suffice to say, it’s a trite and ineffective way to resolve the story. It essentially deflates what tension had been built up and removed me from any attachment to the events that had just unfolded.
On the plus side, Ed Harris and William Fichtner make a great team of Captain and Executive Officer. Their performances drive the boat, so to speak, and it’s easy to root for their success again the likes of a slimy David Duchovny brought onboard to test a mysterious piece of equipment. The flashback scenes of a tragic incident in Harris’ past are wonderfully handled, almost delivered in a horror genre sensibility, and help to increase the claustrophobic nature of the movie so ably portrayed via the small confines of the submarine.
It did take a bit of time to find a comfort zone with the movie. The early introductions to some of the sailors rang hollow and seemed to come out of some paint-by-numbers script. There’s of course the problem with the ending but I will give the film full credit for a thoroughly engaging and at times thrilling middle section. Re-arranging the opening scenes to be told via flashback would have dropped the audience into the thick of things much quicker and a complete re-write of the ending would have been nice as well.
All that being said, if you’re a big fan of submarine movies, there are enough good scenes in the middle to outweigh the problems on the ends. For people trying to spot San Diego landmarks, there’s not much to find, as most of the movie takes place inside the submarine. You’ll just have to be content with knowing it was filmed here. I walked in with very light expectations and saw them partially exceeded for a good chunk of the movie, only to have them dashed in the last 10 minutes. Still, there’s something to be said for immersing yourself in film via a nice, dark theater so if you think this one is worth a try, I wouldn’t try too hard to stop you and think the big screen is best in this instance. If you wait for the home market, maybe make sure to dim the lights nice and low and refrain from stretching out on the couch. You can only suspend your sense of disbelief so far.
Phantom hits theaters on March 1, 2013 and is rated R for violence.
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