Arts & Entertainment

‘Phantom’ is missing plausible answers

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Phantom

If you’ve been drawn in by the artistic-license debate over “Lincoln,” “Argo,” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” we’ve got a doozy for you: How about a movie that speculates that a vanished Soviet Cold War submarine was the test vessel for a cloaking device? And that the episode came even closer than the Bay of Pigs to triggering World War III?

Filmmaker Todd Robinson (“Lonely Hearts,” a middling John Travolta true-crime yarn) generates some engrossing tension with his crazy-provocative premise, layering on political machinations and global implications that get twistier as they go. But the plot is dragged down by a script filled with awkward exposition and blunt audience cues. (And “cloaking device”? You’d think Robinson would avoid tech speak that sounds so “Star Trek,” especially when the film wants to fly the “inspired by true events” banner.)

The year is 1968. Ed Harris is Demi, a service-weary submarine commander hastily summoned to take an ancient diesel model on a final run before it’s sold off to the Chinese. It’s obvious from the portentous talk Demi shares with his superior (Lance Henriksen) that he’s a Captain With a Past — “Do you think we can be redeemed for the things we’ve done?” Demi wonders — but whether the mission is a punishment or something else is unclear. Still, he’s got the loyalty of his crew (William Fichtner, Johnathon Schaech, et al.), and he’s capable of handling the chauffeuring drudgery when an enigmatic, government-assigned team (led by David Duchovny) tags along.

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And then Demi’s hallucinatory seizures start — cryptic visions of bloodied faces and hellfire beneath the waves. And Duchovny’s Bruni starts giving orders, mostly for the sub to get recklessly close to other vessels. It’s an inexplicable move from a protocol standpoint, but one that’s explained nevertheless — as necessary testing for the “Phantom” hardware Bruni has toted aboard. What’s he up to in the bigger scheme of things? Why would the powers that be put their game-changing prototype on such a rickety boat, and in the hands of someone like Demi? Questions, questions.

The answers come teasingly, little by little, and yet they’re the only aspect of the movie with any consistent flow. Because Robinson gives us no viewer surrogate — in “Das Boot,” for instance, there’s a newbie war correspondent who needs everything clarified — clunky dialogue crops up all over. (Third in command: “That’s below crush depth!” Demi: “I know what crush depth is, Pavlov!”) The director taps Duchovny for intensity he just can’t muster. And once Demi addresses his demons — not exorcising them, just Oprah-sharing them — the thread is simply dropped.

And here we were thinking that the real distraction might be the decision to have the cast eschew Russian accents. (Harrison Ford tried one in “K-19: The Widowmaker”; Sean Connery didn’t bother in “The Hunt for Red October.” Smart or silly? Text your vote now.) The crew doesn’t much look the part either, save for Schaech’s Stalin ’stache. Yet the movie does show the ability to get past this, even with the weight of all its narratively risky conspiracy theorizing. It’s a shame the intrigue has to get torpedoed by elements that mostly feel correctable.

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