At the height of the Cold War, a Russian submarine disappeared in the South Pacific. Americans discovered an undetonated nuclear missile on the sea floor near where the sub vanished.
Phantom imagines how it might have gotten there …
It's a celebratory scene on the docks and in the bars at Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base on Russia's eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. Fresh—or not so fresh—off 76 days at sea, an aging submarine captain named Demi and the men he commands have barely begun to sample shore leave's carnal pleasures when Demi's informed that he and his crew will be heading back to sea … immediately.
They won't be piloting their normal sub, though. Instead, they'll be boarding an ancient, dilapidated "museum piece" that's been fitted with some new top-secret technology. Also coming aboard: a team of "technicians" from the "special projects institute" who'll be testing whatever it is that's been installed on the old sub.
Demi and his crew are barely underway when they have a chance to test the so-called "Phantom" device. Bruni orders the sub to surface and fire up its noisy diesel engines (instead of running silently) when an American sub turns up nearby. In other words, commit strategic suicide. Demi grudgingly obeys.
As the Phantom system fires up, the American sub mysteriously leaves off its pursuit.
Is it a cloaking device? the crew wonders. Actually, Bruni explains, it's a contraption designed to send the sonic signatures of other kinds of ships into the water—thus enabling the sub to pretend it's something it isn't.
The test successful, Demi and his political officer, Pavlov, are eager to radio the good news back to Mother Russia. Not so fast, Bruni counters, warning that such a transmission would alert the Americans. Confused and increasingly distrustful of Bruni's motives, Demi begins to suspect that the "technician" is actually a rogue KGB agent with an altogether more sinister agenda: fomenting World War III.
"There are only two reasons why a boat would go rogue," Demi tells his executive officer, Alex. "One is to defect. The other is to start a war. And I don't think we're defecting."
Demi's suspicions are proven correct when Bruni and his men stage an armed takeover of the submarine. Their plan is to pose as a Chinese sub and launch a nuclear missile that will be the catalyst for a catastrophic clash between American and China—leaving Russia to rule what's left of the world. Demi is a faithful Russian soldier, but he believes that Bruni has crossed the line into crazed zealotry in the name of protecting and exalting the Motherland. He also has the foresight to put a little faith in the empathy and compassion of the U.S.
It's up to him and his men, Demi concludes, to save the day … and the world. And so Demi heroically—and sacrificially—leads his men as they set out to do exactly that, many giving their lives in the process.
Tender connections between Demi and his wife and daughter let us know how much he loves them.
One of Demi's crew members hastily ties the knot in a Russian Orthodox wedding. A priest intones, "Only God can now can separate what He has joined together." Passing reference is also made to faith and prayer during the ceremony.
The priest later asks a reluctant Demi if he has any sins to confess, telling him, "You wonder why He's silent and you have so many questions." Demi returns, "It's always been a pretty one-way conversation." To which the priest says, "It's as much about what He hears as what He says."
Demi wears a Russian Orthodox cross, which Bruni mocks at one point, asking, "You really think religious icons are going to save you?" In a conversation with his commanding officer, Demi wonders, "Do you think we can be redeemed for the things we've done?" The officer answers, "I don't know. In our dreams, maybe."
The afterlife is hinted at by way of a scene showing dead sailors as ghosts, observing the grief of their living loved ones. Demi tells Bruni at one point that he'll see him "in hell in about 90 seconds."
Several submariners celebrate the end of their mission with three buxom, cleavage-baring women (perhaps prostitutes, though it's not made clear). One woman puts a shot of vodka between her breasts, and a man "retrieves" it while nuzzling her chest.
The newly married crew member alludes to having made the most of the two hours with his bride before setting sail. We see them kissing eagerly at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony.
A man is shown putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. (We see the muzzle flash through a window from a distance.) Another is said to have tried to commit suicide years before. A third's throat is slashed with a knife, leading to bloodshed and convulsions as he slowly dies.
Once conflict erupts between Demi's men and Bruni's on the submarine, perhaps a dozen or so sailors are killed. Five or six are gunned down during a firefight. Bruni mercilessly shoots and kills several of Demi's lieutenants in an effort to "persuade" him to cooperate. A man, it's implied, is killed when the missile he's seeking to sabotage is launched. Somebody has his head rammed brutally into a bulkhead, knocking him out. We see brief fistfights between the men as well.
Torpedo blasts rock several different submarines. Men die of asphyxiation. We see Soviet soldiers hauling men out of a sub in body bags.
Demi is an epileptic and thus prone to violent seizures. In their throes, he has dreamlike flashbacks to a submarine accident years before that claimed the lives of six men. In that incident, he ordered a bulkhead door closed on men trapped in a fiery compartment in order to save the boat. One of his memories involves a burning hand briefly reaching up to a round portal before falling away.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. A half-dozen or more s-words. God's name is misused twice (once paired with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' name is abused once. Other profanities include a handful of uses of "h‑‑‑," and one or two each of "d‑‑n" and "b‑‑ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several scenes show soldiers smoking cigarettes. More often, they knock back shots of vodka or, in Demi's case, rum. Demi muses about how most Russian naval commanders are, by nature of their stressful jobs, alcoholics.
Demi takes prescription medication for his epilepsy.
You either like submarine stories or you don't. The caustic claustrophobia. The undersea silence inevitably punctured by explosions and gushes of water. The gravity of the usually murky missions.
I, for one, happen to resonate with that kind of actioner. I read Tom Clancy's first novel, the submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, shortly after it came out in 1984. The movie, of course, followed a few years later (in 1990), and it did not dull my affinity even a little.
So, since nobody on the "don't" side of the submariner-tale debate has even heard of Phantom, much less is reading this review, the obvious question here is, How does this Ed Harris vs. David Duchovny underwater war flick stack up against its cramped competition?
To be sure, it's no Hunt for Red October. But it does dive into the same seas as K-19: The Widowmaker and U-571.
I, for one, then, think it's too bad that Phantom also dives into some foul language and brief sensuality … and shows up on sonar screens with a big R rating due to a couple of intensely violent moments: a suicide and a slit throat.