Phantom is based on a shadow of a story that might be true. This sense of vagueness pervades the movie, shaped and misshaped like an oft-repeated, never-verified tale. A series of closing title cards explain the basis of the story: in the late 1960s, a Soviet submarine went missing, only to be discovered at the bottom of the ocean years later. The details of what happened remain classified by both the US and Russia, but both countries supposedly speculate that the sub fired a missile that never blew, an accident that narrowly averted the beginning of World War III.
In turning a rumor into a movie, Todd Robinson tries to root this fuzzy backstory in the weathered human face of Demi (Ed Harris), a Soviet sub captain assigned to one more mission before his retirement, an experiment to be conducted on an outdated ship. That experiment is to be run by Bruni (David Duchovny), who turns out to be a rogue KGB member with secret plans for an advanced cloaking device. The layers of who knows what are made more complicated by the fact that Demi also suffers from seizures and hallucinations, causing some of the crew to question his authority.
This description suggests the ingredients are in place for a taut little thriller, especially given the movie’s Cold War submarine setting. Its physical space holds a low-fi fascination, cluttered with wheels, levers, and pipes. Even before Phantom descends underwater, its images are shadowy and dim, which calls attention to whenever beams of artificial light streak through the sub machinery. It could have been a stripped-down, hallucinatory take on Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October, pitting two strong-willed men against each other for control of a ship that doubles as a powerful weapon.
But the look of this ship turns out to be the movie’s most interesting element, visually or otherwise. Robinson tries to get us inside Demi’s head by showing us his hallucinations, full of shock cuts to disturbing imagery—a barking dog, a looming figure—but the visions don’t pay off. They hardly seem to affect the story’s outcome, save for the way they tie loosely into a maudlin semi-twist ending. Moreover, for much of the movie, these visual flourishes don’t match Demi’s description of “dreams so clear I can’t tell what’s real” (as far as the audience can see, the dreams aren’t clear at all). Demi feels like he’s losing his mind, which we know because he says exactly that, as he and everyone else on board tend to explain their motivations and articulate their feelings.
The expositional dialogue, along with a constantly humming score, undermines the dim light and close compositions, making the movie feel artificial rather than immersive, as if it’s a mock-up of a thriller designed to play in the background of other movies. The fakeness is exacerbated by the Russians being played by American actors speaking in clear American accents.
Technically, this conforms to the unofficial rule of monkeying around with a foreign language in an English language movie: it’s better to have a uniform system (be it speaking in Russian, speaking English with Russian accents, or speaking English with American accents) than distracting inconsistencies. And yet Phantom severely tests the limits of consistency by having these American-accented Russians constantly refer to “the Americans,” giving much of their dialogue a bizarre dissonance more appropriate to a stage production than a feature film. If the filmmakers decided giving the actors their own voices would be less laughable than saddling them with Russian accents, why on earth does the film include a pointless exchange in which Bruni, asked whether he’s ever been to American, gives a disdainful response in Duchovny’s thoroughly American monotone?
Not that it matters. Beyond some initial confusion about which side of the Cold War the characters are supposed to be on, accent questions only pop up because Phantom places itself in such a rut. Once Demi becomes suspicious of Bruni, much of the movie consists of Harris and Duchovny explaining the plot to each other, when they’re not pulling guns on each other.
The actors should be well matched: imagine Duchovny’s stubborn, deadpan confidence butting up against Harris’ rock-like authority (as we’re looking for distractions during this slow-moving, over-explicatory exercise, we might have visions of Harris as Skinner on The X-Files). Imagine you must, because Phantom doesn’t deliver many actor-to-actor fireworks, just squinting, shouting, and eventually, the requisite close-quarters gunplay. The real story of Phantom remains historically murky. But that seems preferable to devising such tedious and unconvincing elucidation.