Director: Todd Robinson
Starring: Ed Harris, Julian Adams and David Duchovny
Reviewed by Philip Barrett and Justin Webb
Philip Barrett: Phantom is depressing, but not from anything the film does. No, Todd Robinson’s latest saddens the soul because such absurd filmmaking will be receiving a wide release. How anyone at RCR thought this needed to be released in theaters is beyond me. It boggles the mind how talent like Ed Harris, David Duchovny, and William Fitchner thought this would be a good career move. To really sum it up, this movie should have stayed underwater like the submarines in this film.
Justin Webb: I’d agree with that assessment. Phantom suffers primarily due to the amateur direction of Robinson, who seems bent on telling the most saccharine, uninvolved narrative imaginable, while still insisting that he be taken seriously with an absurd take on a real event. I think the biggest mystery is what you said: why on Earth talent like the ones mentioned above would take on such a third-rate thriller?
Philip: It’s tough to be taken seriously when you have a movie that’s trying to tell a story about a Soviet Submarine in the 1960’s, and not one actor in the film attempts a Russian accent. For all its faults, Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated K-19: The Widowmaker at least had the decency to have Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford talk in the native accents, and those two are about Russian as they are ducks. Robinson must’ve felt his actors couldn’t pull off those accents (in which case, you recast the parts,) or he didn’t even bother to have them try (which is lazy filmmaking.)
Justin: Interesting that you should say that. My issue is that you have Ed Harris as the lead, who is very American (everyone here knows him), so his name and appearance stick out like a sore thumb. Nothing about these characters seems entirely believable, either. Something here feels half-done. Namely David Duchovny, who looks and feels out of place as a die-hard Soviet bent on taking control of the vessel.
Philip: Duchovny at least looks a little Russian. He just monotones his way through the whole thing, and never feels menacing or a threat. True, he’s known for being deadpan, but it works for Fox Mulder, and Duchovny shows great range on Californication. Other actors completely wasted are Sean Patrick Flanery, who’s barely recognizable, and I still couldn’t tell you who he was. Then Lance Henriksen shows up and is completely wasted and underused. Why is he there? The movie couldn’t be bothered to tell his that, or his character’s motivations.
Justin: Lance Henricksen was certainly a big surprise–only in the “why exactly was he even cast?” sense. Initially he’s set up as this Soviet with medical problems (that are never elaborated on) and a dark past, but for whatever reason, he’s never used outside of the first ten minutes. This also reminds me of the under-developed relationship between Demi and his wife, Elena. She’s only briefly seen in this blue, moody lit bedroom and then bam, she’s never seen or heard from again until the end. This weird choice in the screenplay seems to undermine the mental trauma that Demi has gone through.
Philip: And all of Demi’s mental trauma feels useless. Like all the characters in the film, I don’t care about him or his trauma, why he’s sent on this mission, why Duchovny wants to take over the submarine, or anything that should make the audience invested in the film. Robinson also wrote the film, and this really feels like a case of a director not divorcing himself from his work.
But on the same token, there’s not of the film that could be lost of it improving, which makes one wonder if this was a good idea to adapt to begin with. Maybe somewhere it was a good concept, but Robinson’s execution of it lacks everything needed to make this compelling. Instead of wanting a hammer to be taken to Bruni’s head to stop him from overtaking the ship, I kept hoping someone would hammer my head to get me out of this movie.
Justin: Indeed. Demi’s past seems just that: the past. Like other films with likeminded concepts of “phantoms” (yes, it’s the meaning of the title, too) haunting our hero’s present, his past never feels threatening, nightmarish or very much a part of the present. We’re subjected to an onslaught of rapid-fire editing and excruciatingly noisy sequences featuring Demi’s bloody history that feels more like our punishment than his.
David Duchovny is sorely miscast. For whatever reason, Bruni never reveals himself to be all that threatening. In spite of his attempts at being a “mystery”, he comes across as more of a blank slate with no mind of his own than someone with any ulterior motive. That’s one of the key reasons as to why this thriller is so inept.
Philip: You mentioned “phantoms” (or lack thereof,) and it’s never made clear what they are, outside of the new device Bruni’s brought on board. They build at a failed submarine mission or whatever it was (and frankly, I don’t care,) but there’s no semblance of back story to support why these “phantoms” are so threatening. While at the very least he, she, or it could embody a character, it’s relegated to terrible memories that make no sense. It leads to Phantom‘s biggest problem; it is, and feels, cheap. Robinson shoots this tightly, not to be claustrophobic (which I felt none of,) but because the budget wouldn’t allow for a more convincing submarine set. Byron Werner’s cinematography doesn’t help either, and perhaps he should stick to video games instead of tackling full-on features.
Justin: Interestingly enough, they shot it in a real submarine, but that only makes it that much worse. The cinematography neither enhances the experience or supports it; the supposed “claustrophobia” lasts for about ten minutes until it winds down and returns to normal. But you’re right, there’s never any sense of the closed-in reality that these characters are experiencing. Instead it looks and feels like they’re on a set. We never get any sense of the coldness or claustrophobia of the submarine, or the mania that these characters will undoubtedly experience (though it’s off-handedly inserted into the third act) in such a cramped environment.
Philip: What should be a taut thriller with reliable actors comes off as an excruciating experience that will give you “phantoms.” Todd Robinson hasn’t turned in something remotely serviceable, but completely God-awful. Phantom is a film that feels too big for its britches, but still wants to wear ’em anyway. It’s a film that tries to be important, and it wants to make you think it is, but only does so by showing people how not to make a film. Unlike the near misses in this movie, Phantom shoots completely away from it’s target, and kills a nearby porpoise that was just passing by.
Justin: Whether it be from a screenwriting standpoint or a directorial one, Phantom fails to make even an intelligible response to something as grandiose as its subject matter. It takes a great deal of care to make a film, let alone one that involves such a large subject matter coupled with smaller, more intimate ones such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, and Robinson carelessly wades out into the deep end, only to be sunk by his own ambitions and ill-inconceived ideas.