Hollywood has mined the possible drama inside a submarine before with mixed results, most successfully in The Hunt For Red October and more recently in U-571. Ed Harris and David Duchovny star in the latest submarine thriller, Phantom. Loosely based off real events, Phantom chronicles the disappearance of a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear missiles in 1968, the height of Cold War tensions. Phantom is not the taut suspense thriller it aspires to be, but delivers enough action and surprises to keep one’s interest going until closing credits crawl.
Ed Harris is the real star of Phantom, playing a battle-tested Soviet submarine Captain named Demi. Demi is sent out on a top secret mission at the last minute, initially told he will be delivering an aging diesel submarine to the Chinese. Along for the ride are his trusted second-in-command, Alex Kovlov (William Fichtner), and a small group of KGB agents, led by Bruni (David Duchovny). It has to be said that in a movie filled with fine acting and the correct casting for most roles, Duchovny sleepwalks through the role of KGB agent Bruni, a mysterious character in the role of antagonist and villain.
Phantom is unusual in that its sole focus is this one Soviet submarine and factions fighting for control inside the Soviet Union. Instead of American versus Soviet dichotomy depicted in the Cold War, Phantom chooses to focus on the differing viewpoints on the Soviet side. Demi is the character audiences are supposed to identify with, as it becomes clear the secretive group of KGB agents on the submarine intend to bring Americans into nuclear conflict and Demi is the only one who can stop them. Duchovny is given little to do as Bruni, the man ultimately responsible for everything going wrong on the sub.
Phantom’s first act is slow and padded with unnecessary character. It is only when we start learning about KGB’s true plans does a sense of urgency and intrigue enter the film. Conflict between the KGB and Demi’s own crew ratchets up tension, especially once we learn the end game intended by the KGB agents. The final two acts are fraught with tension and peril, as events quickly escalate to a point inside the Soviet submarine where signs of nuclear armageddon are a real possibility.
Hollywood has produced tighter and more entertaining submarine thrillers than Phantom. It is still a serviceable action drama, which should entertain most adults interested in realistic sea warfare and drama. Ed Harris delivers yet another solid acting performance as an aging submarine captain, a role perfectly suited for his talents.
Phantom doesn’t look quite as good as the latest Hollywood releases on Blu-ray. While it was shot with the RED EPIC camera, most of Phantom was shot inside an authentic submarine, leading to a somewhat dull finish. Fox didn’t help matters either in this case, confining the 98-minute film to a BD-25 with a sub-par video encode.
Aside from odd choices in the color grading, the transfer itself is very solid and free of questionable processing decisions. Dgital video production is free of ringing or filtering, leaving a highly-detailed picture with oodles of high-frequency content. Razor-sharp images can be revealing of finer facial features, particularly in tighter close-ups. Ed Harris’s aging face reveals a surplus of lines and wrinkles, highlighting what a truly unfiltered picture looks like at 1080P these days.
What Phantom lacks is the sort of pumped-up contrast so commonly seen in action thrillers. Color palettes strongly favor a subdued, sickly yellow push, primarily affecting skin-tones. Like so many other digitally-shot productions, Phantom’s black levels fall short of the inky depths seen from 35mm film. There is no exact moment where black crush really occurs, but shadow delineation drops into a slightly washed-out, brightened appearance at times.
The main feature is encoded in AVC, at an average listed bitrate of 19 Mbps. Fox has differing compression standards for a release on a BD-25 or a BD-50, greatly favoring the latter. Viewers on the largest displays and screens will notice a number of compression-related artifacts intrude as Phantom shifts to scenes under the ocean, from banding to a minor instance of macroblocking. It’s not prevalent enough to drop the video rating, but Phantom’s video encode would have been flawless on a BD-50’s typical parameters.
Phantom is graced with an atmospheric 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. This is an aggressive mix in the more intense action passages, especially during conflicts in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Surround channels are effectively employed to create an engaging sense of placement. The subwoofer adds the punch, as explosions under the sea will rock home theaters. The soundfield does collapse a bit during the dialogue-driven scenes inside the submarine, though there is still a very subtle usage of directionality and unusual Foley effects to create a sense of realism.
Two optional subtitle choices are provided, English SDH and Spanish. They are presented strictly within the 2.35:1 frame of the film, in a white font.
Fox has dug up a modest assortment of extra features for Phantom, which only made a token appearance at theaters and might as well have been a direct-to-video movie. The mini-featurettes contain comments and answers from Phantom’s main cast, including David Duchovny and Ed Harris. Fox has provided an UltraViolet copy, which redeems in HDX on VUDU.
Facing the Apocalypse: Making Phantom (12:58 in 1080P) – A decent featurette that follows the standard template of behind-the-scenes documentaries. It includes brief comments from the cast and production crew, featuring footage taken at the time of filming. If they had expanded this featurette another fifteen minutes to flesh out the production details, it would have made an excellent bonus.
The Real Phantom (06:03 in 1080P) – Todd Robinson and Kenneth Sewell flesh out the details of the real history this film is loosely based on from the Cold War.
Jeff Rona: Scoring Phantom (03:00 in 1080P) – Jeff Rona recounts the unusual process he incorporated to create an appropriate score for a movie which largely takes place inside a submarine.
“An Ocean Away” Music Video (02:54 in 1080P)
Audio Commentary by Todd Robinson and Ed Harris – Writer / director Todd Robinson carries most of the conversation between the two men. Harris speaks less but still chimes in on occasion with personal anecdotes about his experiences on filming Phantom. Not the most entertaining commentary, but there aren’t many chances for levity in a movie as serious as Phantom.
Sneak Peek (All in 1080P) – Trailers are included for the following releases: Broken City, The Americans: Season 1, Stoker, Killing Lincoln. Trailers for A Good Day To Die Hard and 12 Rounds II: Reloaded precede the main menu.
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