There's a level of expectation that you afford to anything you see on the big screen you go to the theater to hear new stories and experience new adventures. These standards might not be so high when it comes to, say, a made-for-TV flick you catch on cable one Sunday afternoon. So while Phantom, which feels like an extended crime drama from the cutting room floor of TNT (probably because writer-director Todd Robinson has a long history of small screen movies to his name), might serve as a perfectly valid two hours of entertainment from the comfort of your fluffy sofa, you want more out of your cinema outings. Something that feels like somebody actually tried to make it feel original.
There are a few things that Phantom seems boast as creative triumphs: the film is a Cold War psychological drama told from the perspective of the Soviet military (which we only learn a few leagues into the movie the American cast speaks in English, with no attempt at Russian accents... probably for the best), delving into the haunted mind of submarine captain Demi (Ed Harris) with sporadic flashbacks and visions while manning an apocalyptic mission teamed with a reluctant crew and a legion of strong-arm bureaucrats whose motives grow more nebulous as the film proceeds.
But ambitious themes and a setting to spark interest in war movie freaks and anyone with a few Freudian theories under his or her belt, all placed in the capable hands of Harris and the eh-he's-not-so-bad hands of David Duchovny (one of the chief antagonists to Harris' despaired antihero) pipe in little more than a few moments of first act optimism. As the film peters on and we come to realize that the hokey dialogue and high school drama club performances don't get any better, that the tension isn't in fact building to a catastrophic conflict but is in itself all that the movie is founding its entertainment on, we lose hope.
After this revelation that the delivery of the film far undercuts its conceptual promises, there aren't really any dips. In fact, submitting to the idea that what you're in for is nothing you wouldn't find elsewhere or more than likely be able to predict two scenes before it actually happens, Phantom becomes extremely watchable. Where it sets itself up as dark and challenging, it is in fact breezy and effortless. The twists and turns are cinematic snack food, satisfying your instant gratification for quick movement and high stakes scenarios, but never reaching further for a lasting positive impact or an installment of anything new or particularly interesting.
Still, it's hard to find Phantom too much a flawed project as it isn't so much bad as it is lacking in anything particularly good. It's not the gritty, intriguing dive into the ocean, the war, and the minds of a troubled man as it is a simple romp from the beginnings of a high anxiety maritime mission to the end. The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a time-killer. Something that won't offend, and probably won't even bore, you for 90 minutes. But why go to the theater for that when you can get the same exact thing in an episode and a half of NCIS?