02/28/2013 09:26 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Movie Review: Phantom

By its nature, movies set aboard submarines should come with built-in suspense.

If the story is set during a war, well, there's always the threat of attack. Even during peacetime, submarines are tense settings: the claustrophobia factor, the ever-present possibility of mechanical failure, that whole trapped-at-the-bottom of the ocean thing.

And then, of course, there's always the threat of a giant squid. (Sorry, I saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea too many times when I was a kid.)

Todd Robinson's Phantom, however, tries to have it both ways: the implied threat of the setting, the possibility of war - and the potential of a haunted ship.

Wait - what?

Well, the supernatural only seems to figure in the plotting of Robinson's script - though, ultimately, not literally. Rather, there are other factors that explain the strange doings, some of which may actually be occurring in the mind of the sub's captain, Demi (Ed Harris).

It's 1968 and Demi, back from a long assignment at sea, figures he's ready for retirement. Instead, his commander (Lance Henriksen) informs him that, in fact, in less than 48 hours he'll be shipping back out. And not just shipping out: He'll be commanding a virtual antique, the Russian fleet's oldest sub. It was Demi's first ship as a young sailor; now he will be commanding before it is mothballed.

Or at least that's the official line. But, because the turnaround is so quick, he'll have to make do with only part of his usual crew, working with a group of fill-ins that the navy has rounded up in port. Among them: a pair of mysterious civilians, including Bruni (David Duchovny).

In fact, Demi's orders - as carried by Bruni - are not what he expected. They involve a secret weapon, a cloaking device to avoid radar. But there's also a plot hatched by a breakaway group of hardline KGB types, that will end with Demi's sub firing its nuclear missile at an American ship. Or, perhaps, at a Russian ship, while American ships are nearby, to make it seem as though the Americans attacked first.

Oh, and Demi has a medical secret that's causing him to see things that aren't there. So the audience can play along to figure out what's real and what isn't.

By that time, however, we don't care. Though Harris is always a commanding presence, he can't add depth to material this thin. Nor can he stop the audience from snickering when, at a climactic moment, a gunfight breaks out. In a submarine. And no one thinks about the possibility of, oh, springing a leak.

This is a sterling cast, with Harris, Duchovny, William Fichtner, Jason Beghe and Johnathan Schaech, among others. They bring a strong masculinity to the film (while making the choice to play all of these Russians with Midwestern American accents).

But this underwater drama sinks itself with its overly formal dialogue (as though Robinson is trying to channel Eugene O'Neill at times), limited imagination for plotting and overheated dramatic leaps that take you out of the movie, rather than immersing you more completely.

Phantom supposedly is based on actual events. But that doesn't lend it weight, authority or even a modicum of dramatic sense.

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