Creating relatable characters and diverse, intriguing sets that truly showcase the protagonists and antagonists’ motivations are two important, key elements in creating a captivating thriller. Like with many historical fiction movies, the new film ‘Phantom,’ which is now playing at select Long Island theaters, successfully incorporated complex military characters who are in part driven by their overpowering surroundings aboard their latest submarine. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the film’s writer-director, Todd Robinson, the story unfortunately lacks lasting suspenseful intrigue or explanation on the characters’ true motivations.
‘Phantom’ follows Demi (Ed Harris), the captain of a Cold War Soviet missile submarine who has recently been suffering from seizures that alter his perception of reality. Forced to leave his wife and daughter, he is rushed into a classified mission, where he is haunted by his past. Demi is also challenged by a rogue KGB group, led by Bruni (David Duchovny), who is set on seizing control of the ship’s nuclear missile. With the fate of humanity in his hands, Demi discovers he has been chosen for this mission in the belief he would fail. With the help of his second-in-command, Alex (William Fichtner), and the submarine’s political officer, Pavlov (Johnathon Schaech), Demi must decide how to best protect and save not only his crew, but all of humanity.
Robinson made a commendable effort to create an emotionally driven script that humanizes the Soviet military, which many Americans perceived to be the demoralizing enemy throughout the Cold War. By showcasing Demi and his crew as being upset to leave their families so soon after their last mission, but willing to take on whatever responsibility was needed of them to serve their country and government, the filmmaker created relatable characters that any audience can relate to, despite their differing ideals. From Demi struggling to keep his medical condition that causes seizures hidden from his crew, so they will continue to follow and support him, to Alex and Pavlov questioning their captain’s decisions when Bruni forces his way on board, the characters in ‘Phantom’ undergo radical explorations of their beliefs, and moral questioning of right and wrong.
While Robinson created diverse characters who react differently to the KGB’s hostile takeover on the submarine, the film’s story unfortunately lacks lasting suspenseful intrigue, becoming tedious and monotonous at times. The filmmaker incorporated plot elements that aren’t fully explained throughout the thriller, from Demi’s commander Markov (Lance Henriksen) ordering him to take out an antique ship one last time before it’s demolished, to Bruni forcing his way on board so that he can fire a nuclear missile at an American ship. As Demi and his crew are struggling to maintain control over their submarine and determine why the KGB targeted them to launch their missile, there are too many subplots and characters adding to the conflict. Robinson also doesn’t provide enough satisfying answers or intriguing explorations into what is truly moving the conflicts between Demi and Bruni’s crews forward.
Despite the lack of fully developed answers to the story’s conflicts, ‘Phantom’s production designer, Jonathan A. Carlson, created distinctive sets that helped give insight into the characters’ motivations. With the majority of ‘Phantom’ taking place on the submarine, Carlson successfully created a unified set that made it seem as though the crew was always on board, while always being evident what room they were in. For instance, Demi would reflect on his career and family life, while contemplating on how to best cope with his medical condition, while in his office, surrounded by pictures of his wife and daughter. But while operating the submarine in the crowded control room, the machines appeared as though they were looming in on Demi, emphasizing his conflicted nature on how to best save his crew from the KGB group.
Robinson strived to create a daring, humanizing look into the mindset of the Soviet military, and offer a plausible explanation for the sinking of the Soviet submarine K-129 in 1960, events on which the movie is based. While the diverse characters are well paired to the creative production design by Carlson, ‘Phantom’ unfortunately lacks lasting suspense or any real intrigue. With so many subplots and characters in the thriller and hasty explanations for their motivations, the film unfortunately fails to truly engage audiences.