In March 1968, the Soviet nuclear submarine K-129 sank under mysterious circumstances in the North Pacific Ocean, leading to a secret, expensive U.S. recovery operation called Project Azorian, as well as conspiracy theories about the ship’s mission and the cause of its demise. From the safe distance of “Inspired by a true story,” Todd Robinson’s Phantom explores one of those theories, using the K-129’s warheads to plumb deep into Cold War tensions and the internal struggles between the KGB and the Soviet Navy. Though pitched as a thriller, Robinson’s woefully underbudgeted film plays instead like a chamber drama, so simple and unadorned that it could just as easily be staged as an off-off-Broadway play without anyone telling the difference. And that isn’t entirely to the film’s detriment, either: With a cast choked with great character actors like Ed Harris, William Fichtner, and Lance Henriksen, less is sometimes more.
Robinson makes the curious decision to stock the submarine with American actors without Russian accents—a decision he hopes will help audiences forget they’re Soviet sailors and “simply see them as human beings under tremendous pressure.” Approaching the end of a long, ignominious military career, Ed Harris is given one last mission as captain of an ancient, diesel-fueled contraption that will likely follow him into retirement. In spite of his tendency toward heavy drinking, and the mass tragedy from his past that persistently haunts him, Harris inspires loyalty among his men, but there are mutinous forces aboard for this mission. Once they’re out in open water, some KGB agents on board, led by David Duchovny, undermine Harris’ authority by taking command and testing a secret cloaking device that puts the submarine at great risk.
The questionable true agenda of Duchovny and his glowering cronies is where Phantom’s suspense lies, and it mostly comes down to power plays in tight quarters. Robinson’s plotting is skillful enough, and the actors are given plenty of latitude, except for the distracting lack of accents. But Harris’ haunted past gets treated with the cheap shock effects of a second-rate horror movie, and the production’s frugality, in combination with the Americans-as-Soviets, severely damages any attempt at verisimilitude. Add to that a tacky, sentimental ending, and a film that promises the threat of World War III sinks limply into the murky depths.