Phantom is a third-rate submarine drama until, in its final moments, it sinks to fourth-rate. Writer-director Todd Robinson’s film claims it’s inspired by true events, but as a textual coda makes clear, what that actually means is that only the skeleton of its story—about a Russian that mysteriously sank in 1968 and was recovered years later on the ocean floor—is based in fact; everything else proffered by this leaden tale is nothing but baseless conjecture. And conjecture without much imagination, considering that the action at hand is a compendium of creaky clichés about a Soviet naval commander, Demi (Ed Harris), who before being put out to pasture is given one last tour on the sub he first commanded, an aged vessel he once crashed in a notorious mishap. Demi is joined by his loyal right-hand man, Alex (William Fichtner), and a group of mysterious “technicians” led by Bruni (David Duchovny) who won’t reveal the true nature of Demi’s mission, and whose installation of secret technology on the sub implies clandestine motivations that soon become not-so-clandestine: Bruni plans to use a newfangled cloaking device to start WWIII by firing a nuke on America’s Pacific fleet and making it look like the Chinese’s handiwork.
This diabolical plot involves taking over command from Demi, who suffers from epilepsy—which leads to schizo flashback montages prone to give viewers a migraine—and who, as evidenced by the intro passage’s blunt exposition, is in search of “salvation” from a god who never responded to his pleas. Such stock blather is almost as tedious as the in-sub action, shot with tight close-ups that fail to generate requisite claustrophobic tension, and whiplash camera movements that are eager to simulate the sensation of seasickness. Harris delivers a typically gruff, commanding turn that’s undercut by dialogue that makes his character’s every thought and emotion obvious, and Duchovny is simply miscast as a true-believer KGB zealot determined to strike first before the Americans get the upper hand.
Debates about the morality of preemptive war are, like Demi’s regret regarding his daughter, treated with superficiality, so that more time can be spent on inert sequences in which Demi and his crew attempt to re-seize control of their vessel. Even Phantom’s general torpor, however, can’t quite prepare one for its final scene, which, providing every bit of closure, redemption, and happily-ever-after comfort that its characters crave, indulges in cornball pseudo-spiritual bathos of an abjectly laughable sort.