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Phantom Torpedoes Itself

<i>Phantom</i> Torpedoes Itself

DVD Release Date: June 25, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: March 1, 2013 
Rating: R for violence
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 97 min. 
Director: Todd Robinson
Cast: Ed Harris, David Duchovny, William Fichtner, Lance Henriksen, Johnathon Schaech

The last time Ed Harris took part in a mission beneath the sea was 1989’s The Abyss. The results were something to behold. A gripping story of human relationships tested under great strain, The Abyss ended with the discovery of otherworldly life forms and a grand picture of things we might only imagine. It wasn’t to everyone’s liking—the film’s alien-dominated climax struck some viewers as hokey—but under the expert guidance of director James Cameron, the journey delivered an emotional thrill ride that holds up to repeated viewing.

Twenty-four years later, Harris stars in Phantom as Demi, a Russian submarine captain on one last mission. But this time, writer-director Todd Robinson's story lacks all the qualities that made The Abyss so memorable. Leaden, dull and a near complete failure at generating needed suspense, Phantom drifts through 97 minutes telling a story that lacks urgency. That’s a deadly flaw for this attempt to flesh out a Cold War mystery.

In 1968, not too many years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Russian ballistic-missile sub disappeared, and Phantom imagines its fate. Demi receives orders for one final mission, and his surly crew has no choice but to follow him back under the waves. Loyal to Demi is Alex (William Fichtner, Blades of Glory), whose diligence in support of Demi and the crew has put him in line to command his own sub one day.

The purpose and goal of the sub’s last trip remains mysterious to the crew until the sub is well out to sea, when Bruni (David Duchovny, Things We Lost in the Fire)—a KGB agent who suddenly appears and insinuates himself into the mission just as the men are setting out—reveals the aim of the mission. He plans to use a device called the phantom to make the ship "invisible" to sonar—and then launch another world war.

That should be enough to set up some spicy set-piece sequences and sustain audience interest, but Robinson’s story takes far too long to reveal where it’s heading, snuffing out any smoldering tension developed early in the film. Phantom lulls us with a slow build but forgets to punch up the payoff.

While we wait for the story to kick into gear, we learn that Demi is haunted by a past tragedy, lives with a brain injury and suffers through occasional, traumatic flashbacks. Robinson also adds a religious angle to Demi’s suffering, viewing faith through a jaded lens. Demi at one point interacts skeptically with a priest and brusquely rejects the priest’s attempts to empathize with Demi’s spiritual frustrations. The story’s spiritual thread is cut off thereafter, resurfacing in explicit terms only much later in the film, when a crucifix worn around a man’s neck is said to be a powerless icon. The film’s ending also has spiritual overtones, but to call it satisfying would be a stretch.

Phantom is an act of historical invention that never engages the imagination. It’s a dreary story that merely tests viewers’ patience. Better to let this one sink to the bottom and instead revisit one of the better underwater thrillers of recent decades. Besides The Abyss, try 1990’s John McTiernan-directed adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, a skillfully made Cold War submarine thriller that delivers everything Phantom doesn’t.


  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; a few uses of the “f”-word; “s-it”; “son of a b-tch”
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Several scenes of drinking; smoking; pills washed down with liquor
  • Sex/Nudity: Cleavage; a man puts his face in a woman’s chest
  • Violence/Crime: A suicide by shot to the head; discussion of a suicide attempt; throat slit; a gun pointed; shootings
  • Religion: A character asks, "Do you think we can be redeemed for the things we have done?"; A priest says to Demi, "You wonder why He's silent and you have so many questions." Demi replies, "It was pretty much a one-way conversation." Asked if he wants to confess, Demi says, "Confession for what?"; a man sees a crucifix and asks, "You think icons are going to save you?"

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Publication date: March 1, 2013