DVD - Image B Sound A Extras B-
BD - Image B Sound A Extras B-
starring Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Sam Spruell, Peter Stebbins
screenplay by Christopher Kyle
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
by Walter Chaw The film opens with a false alarm because drills are how all cookie-cutter closed-vehicle thrillers begin. Screenwriters free of the limiting bonds of imagination call it "foreshadowing"; critics forced to watch at least one film that begins this way per year prefer "tedious." K-19: The Widowmaker (hereafter K-19) has a tedious narrative married to vein-swelling performances presented in that frank gracelessness indicative of director Kathryn Bigelow's sledgehammer-chic since long about Point Break, brought together under the steady hand of a legendary editor (Walter Murch) that only just guides this behemoth of conflicting ideas and wet (and drunken) Russian submariners into the dry dock of coherence.
It's not a good film, but it is a fitfully watchable one, making K-19 a beast that falls between the fascinating discomfort of Bigelow's Strange Days and the mawkish pretension of her The Weight of Water (also "based on" a true story, Hollywood-style). Even Murch, however, can't save the picture from its own worst instincts, first with irradiated sailors heroically injured by their courage, then during a fifteen-minute conclusion that manages to not only shoehorn a television playing the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson in mad-scientist fright makeup toasting fallen comrades under obfuscating end titles.
Furrowed-brow Ford is Capt. Alexi Vostrikov, sent to command the new flagship of the Russian Navy, the K-19 nuclear submarine. His father a hero of The Revolution later sent to the Gulag (which leads to a bad one-liner, the existence of which seems a contingency in Ford's contracts), Vostrikov is forced to replace popular Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Neeson), who's been demoted to XO for his unreasonable demands for appropriate measures to be taken to ensure his crew's safety. Thus this "true story" becomes, somehow, another iteration of Crimson Tide sans Quentin Tarantino's gift for dialogue (all the chatter's conjectural anyway, why not make it speakable?)--a collection of wartime archetypes that boil down to a "Simpsons"-style distillation of brave one, cowardly one, leader, antagonist, and religious guy quietly going insane.
Soon, the flat incompetence of Russian engineering puts the stock sailors in close proximity to a plutonium rod without a coolant system (the backup?: "It wass nut instulled, com-e-rade capitan!"), forcing the brave one to sacrifice himself, the cowardly one to cower, the leader to lead, the antagonist to antagonize, and the religious one to get turned into Brundlefly by the radiation. K-19 is a by-the-numbers undersea opera that earns a little slack for not being as feckless as U-571, which it promptly buries under a passel of strange accents that actually make one yearn for the halcyon days of Connery's Cyrillic brogue.
There seems a recent mania for recasting the fervid, terrifying world of Red-hunts and nuclear annihilation in the early days of the 1960s as the breeding ground for unusual white-knuckled heroism and split-second decisions. Perhaps it's even true: strife breeds heroes from common staff, after all. Part and parcel with all that chest-expansion, however, is the idea that the seeds for the Soviet Union's eventual downfall were sown by the victories the United States won in the second decade of the Cold War. We had the fast-thinking brothers Kennedy (in Roger Donaldson's own bad-accent theatre, Thirteen Days) and now the selfless deeds of an all-western cast in a Russian nuclear submarine drama, set adrift by a bumbling government already awash in disastrous bureaucratic miscommunications and the (perhaps) ill-founded belief that the United States was awash with warmongers and political Neanderthals. Interestingly enough, the few glimpses we're given of the evil Yankees are a Destroyer sitting around placidly (a couple of days after K-19 has fired off a test missile) and a Navy photographer snapping pictures from a helicopter as the plucky Russian lads bare their bums, Braveheart-style. Glasnost this, baby.
In other words, K-19 is a clumsily-scripted sham constructed of so many misfires and mixed signals that the creaking and groaning of the sub's over-pressurized hull is eventually drowned out by the deep sighs and meaningful rustling of its increasingly incredulous audience. An interesting scene where the Russian crew watches an anti-capitalist propaganda reel becomes by the end of the film a Hamlet-like play-within-a-play, as K-19's dedication to mixing the dire message with the heroic image locates the film itself as the worst kind of con.
The picture plays both sides against the middle: Russians are incompetent but stave off WWIII (in a bit of murky reasoning kept secret by Vostrikov from his crew for murky reasons), Americans are bad but really helpful in a pinch, and, worst of all, Russians are heroic particularly when played by our most doggedly patriotic American actor and an Irish guy who once starred as, of all people, Michael Collins. K-19 is an action film about avoiding an action directed by an undisciplined auteur lent some semblance of structure by nice editing, resulting in a strange movie that can never quite figure out what its story is nor how to tell it. Small wonder, then, that its epilogue serves as its only third act and is tacked-on and desperate besides--one true, telling sign that this boat doesn't have a captain. Originally published: July 19, 2002.
by Bill Chambers Paramount presents K-19: The Widowmaker on DVD in a low-contrast 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks soft and muddy-brown throughout, which seems to be the developed aesthetic of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, Panic Room), son of Blade Runner DP Jordan Cronenweth. I wished for deeper blacks and finer shadow detail, but this is likely my cross to bear; the image is well-compressed besides. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track, on the other hand, is astonishing: The film's editor Walter Murch does double-duty here as its sound designer, providing an unnerving approximation of a disintegrating submarine--bolts spring loose over one's shoulders, steam blasts travel from the front to the rear of the room, the subwoofer is nearly constantly churning...
The film's other listening option is a dry and humourless feature-length, screen-specific commentary by director Kathryn Bigelow and Cronenweth. Bigelow has a gift for observing detail, but in regurgitating it, she's a more potent sleep-aid than Nytol, sad to say. Bigelow and Cronenweth are both enamoured of Russia. Trailer/Optimus Prime voice Peter Cullen is the overzealous narrator of "The Making of K-19: The Widowmaker" (20 mins.), a strictly promotional behind-the-scenes video that taxes one's patience for actors synopsizing their characters. "Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques" (5 mins.) finds radiation prosthetics artist Gordon Smith mispronouncing nuclear "nucular" and Harrison Ford getting false pieces to appear aged that instead give off the impression that he's playing a frozen dinner, while "Breaching the Hull" (5 mins.) incorporates interesting footage of an ice floe staged in miniature before a green-screen, courtesy of effects technician Steven Rosenbaum. The 12-minute "It's In the Details"--an interview-dense featurette (the best of the three) on the "years" of research that went into realizing K-19--plus the film's trailer in 5.1 round out the disc. Originally published: December 30, 2002.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Presumably whisked to Blu-ray ahead of so much worthier product (where's Chinatown, Paramount? Apocalypse Now? The Conversation? Nashville? Don't Look Now? The Parallax View? Planes, Trains & Automobiles? A Simple Plan? Hell, Breakdown?) to exploit the public's sudden awareness of director Kathryn Bigelow, K-19: The Widowmaker looks mostly unimpressive on the format, if a damn sight more detailed than it does on DVD. The biggest issue with this transfer is not DVNR, edge-enhancement, or crushed black levels, but the intermittent and rarely intersecting presence of all three; pick a bugaboo and go with it. That said, it's always a little too dark (reminiscent, almost, of the effects of Macrovision), although the contrast's binary quality makes for striking images whenever the titular submarine surfaces and naval blues find themselves juxtaposed, nay, silhouetted against the stark white of a glacier or a crisp blue sky. Red and green warning lights and reactor blues pop from the screen, offering some nice relief from K-19's otherwise-monochromatic interiors. (Confession: I was on the Toronto set of this film (nine years ago yesterday, as a matter of fact), and still see the sub as a plywood container in the middle of a hangar.) The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is a head-turner, transparent and enveloping, but I have to admit the LFE usage isn't quite as ferocious or continuous as I remembered. Supplements from the 2002 disc return in full, though only the film's theatrical trailer has been upgraded to HiDef. Originally published: May 4, 2010.