“Do you think we’ll be redeemed for the things we’ve done? I don’t know, maybe in our dreams.”
That line or at least a slight variation of it is what steers Todd Robinson‘s deep sea drama into the depths of something much bigger than World War III. One may ask themselves how anything can possibly be bigger than the ending of the world or at least the way we lived it at the time in which this movie takes place, which is back in the Cold War era, where a Soviet captain (Ed Harris) and his crew are sent on a classified mission with a KGB group (led by David Duchovny).
Phantom‘s early and only trailer sold the film as a procedural underwater war film with a very retro feeling due to the new distributor barely promoting the film and the stars mostly being names that don’t really sell films these days. But that doesn’t stop director Todd Robinson from mapping the human spirit like a submarine might map the open waters.
The very existence of Phantom playing at your local movie theater calls for a brief moment of your attention. I must admit that the film isn’t quite a gem when being analyzed for overall completeness in fields such as acting, directing, writing and so on, but what it stands for or more importantly what it tries saying is worthy of turning your head in its general direction.
On the surface the film might bore most, because it’s not once worried about action or advancing a scene with an enormous amount of intensity, despite everything climaxing to a possible nuclear outcome. See, Robinson escalates the war literally with missiles, but each move he makes that advances the film towards its almost inevitable outcome also moves us deeper through one characters soul, revealing his past and accelerating us through the mistakes that have led him up until the film’s current time.
The character that I’m talking about is played with a commanding screen presence by Ed Harris. He’s Captain Demi and we learn early on that he’s got more than a handful of demons haunting his clouded memory that he constantly suppresses with booze and pills. Demi isn’t your ordinary washed up soldier though; he’s the son of a notorious man that pretty much wrote the book on diesel submarines, thus casting a gigantic and inescapable shadow over Demi for his entire life.
Robinson ventures deeper into Demi’s psyche by way of flashbacks that sometimes feel like they were cut together in iMovie, but most of the time work really well at building up on the mystery surrounding the film’s basic plot and why Demi is such a vital piece to this murky puzzle.
Eventually the film’s true intentions are revealed and you start to believe that everything is going to shift normally, but then Robinson pulls the sheets out from under you yet again, with an ending that can be both ambiguous and relieving. You’ll understand what I’m trying to say once you’ve seen the film, but without spoiling it I can only really say that he shoots for something a little deeper and a little more meaningful.
He creates this paradox almost that splits the film in half like the Titanic. It leaves you with one half presenting itself as a straightforward war film about good triumphing over evil in the simplest of ways, while the other half becomes a much more personal journey about one man’s redemption and his path to correcting all of the wrongs in his life.
It brings back the quote that started this all, which I tried my best to copy word-for-word, but forgive me if I paraphrased a bit, because it was said early on almost directly after the opening credits while I was still getting settled in to a movie that for once started before its printed time. Anyways.
Phantom works so much better if you magnify all of these almost spiritual messages peppered in. Most of them appear through great use of lighting and camera work and just the general cutting of scenes. They make for a lot of double interpretation, which I was not expecting at all from such a film.
Judging Phantom purely on its technicalities might push most away. Harris carries most of the dead weight with ease, with William Fichtner almost stealing the thunder from a couple of scenes. The only problem with Fichtner is that he’s such a great actor when he’s on screen, but for some reason he disappears for long stretches at a time.
David Duchovny barely exists on screen, acting more as a physical obstacle than an actual person. He’s physically present, but nothing that comes out of his mouth is remembered for longer than five minutes.
The more I break down Phantom the more I discover its gaping flaws, which is why I’ve chosen to write an article instead of a traditional review. Phantom isn’t a movie that you just watch and sweep under the rug. At least it wasn’t supposed to be.
It almost feels like Todd Robinson had a change of heart midway, because the material dealing with redemption and self-correction almost feels like something that could have made for a completely different film. Somewhere along the lines someone got a hold of the film and tried stripping it of all of its subtext and ideas in exchange for a lesson on submarine warfare without a budget and without an audience.
I would love to see a Phantom that plays out more like the beginning and end of the film, but without the center chunk that focuses too much on classified operations and backstabbing political agendas. That center piece would have also made for a decent movie if it was expanded on too, but meshing the two makes for a film that has ambitions, but ends up nearly sinking itself trying to establish them.
Phantom will rest at the bottom of the box office floor, coldly collecting mere pennies while other much less worthy films rake in the dough. Hollywood clearly has no room for an artfully crafted human drama that just so happens to take place in a metal prison, full of a variety of individuals that help one come at the film from many perspectives. The film is soaked with subtext that’s unfortunately clouded by a general plot that leads the film in circles until it wisely ends on a high note.
Phantom is a messy experiment that I think almost paid off. I can’t get myself to call it a complete failure, but I won’t be going out on a limb and calling it a great film either. It sits in film purgatory, waiting to be discovered or perhaps waiting to gasp that last breath of poisonous air before venturing down into the deep darkness, to be forgotten.
*Phantom was released on March 1st, 2013 and is currently playing at most decent-sized (15 or plus screens) theaters.*