The potential for screw-tightening suspense gets lost amid the ineffectual dramatics in “Phantom,” a feeble fictionalization of a crucial but little-known moment when a rogue Soviet submarine brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. This latest name-cast low-budgeter from writer-director Todd Robinson (“Lonely Hearts”) deploys primarily American actors, chiefly Ed Harris and David Duchovny, to tell a story entirely from the perspective of a Russian crew, an initially interesting choice that ultimately reinforces the overall sense of a stage play intercut with computer-generated underwater mayhem. The RCR release will transition to smallscreen formats after a fleeting theatrical window.
The story is prefaced by a quote from Cold War historian and author Kenneth Sewell, describing a May 1968 superpower skirmish that posed an even greater threat of all-out catastrophe than the Cuban Missile Crisis some six years earlier. That powerhouse premise is immediately followed by a sense of dramatic deflation in the exposition-heavy opening passages, as world-weary Soviet captain Demi (Harris) agrees to spearhead one last mission aboard the B67, a creaky ballistic-missile submarine about to be sold to the Chinese navy.
Unsubtle flashbacks and daydreams establish that Demi is nursing guilt over some long-ago maritime tragedy for which he was at least partly responsible. His moral failure leaves him ill equipped to maintain order when an onboard technician (Duchovny), acting under top-secret orders, seizes control of the ship, whose true mission quickly becomes clear: to trigger WWIII by attacking a U.S. vessel via the titular Phantom, a stealth weapon that will deflect blame onto the Chinese.
The tediously talky script is crammed with enough smart-sounding submarine-navigation minutiae to achieve a reasonable sense of below-decks verisimilitude, underscored by Byron Werner’s effective lensing within the tight quarters of Jonathan A. Carlson’s pipes-and-gadgets production design.
Yet technical proficiency is a poor substitute for storytelling conviction, and any significant viewer investment in “Phantom” is compromised by the film’s flat, English-language rendering of a specifically Russian p.o.v. Briefly sending the mind racing back to such accent-neutral historical dramas as “The Grey Zone” and “Valkyrie,” the decision here feels at once boldly mannered and cravenly commercial; if the intent was to lure American audiences into identification with the enemy, the result is neither sufficiently humanizing nor, more crucially, illuminating.
The performances are solid enough within this bizarre cultural context, and it’s nice to see William Fichtner in a prominent role as Demi’s second-in-command. Additionally, Jeff Rona’s score has a strong, old-fashioned sense of thematic drive that ushers the proceedings along as propulsively as possible.
Turning increasingly violent and mawkish as it draws to a close, the film never rids itself of a stilted, hermetic quality that has less to do with the inherently claustrophobic setting than with the artificiality of the execution. Not helping matters are frequent cutaways from the airless interiors to clearly faked shots of the ship underwater; “Das Boot” it ain’t.