It amazes me that Kathryn Bigelow is a director whose films still continue to become only cult hits. While not all of her films are memorable ("Blue Steel" still is a disapointment), excellent works such as "Strange Days", "Near Dark" and "Point Break" were films that only gained a major following after their theatrical releases. This is especially unfortunate in the case of "Strange Days", as not only do I consider it one of the most underrated gems of the 90's, but I found it to be an incredible film to experience on the big screen.
"K-19" is the director's biggest project to date, costing a reported $100 million dollars and starring both Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Bigelow, who commands both a strong visual style and actors well, seems to be in her element here. Ford, who I've disliked in several recent films of his, seems more intense and lively here than he has in ages. So why didn't many people see this film? It's tough to say. Maybe it wasn't a "Summer" picture (an October/November release seems more appropriate); maybe the "The Widowmaker" subtitle wasn't necessary ("U-571" was just..."U-571"); maybe the critical reception wasn't strong or viewers didn't respond to the trailers.
Being a fan of the submarine genre, I've been able to enjoy such recent films as "U-571", "The Hunt for Red October" and "Crimson Tide" without comparing them to the prior classics ("Das Boot"). While "K-19" isn't without some concerns, this is still a remarkable (remarkably expensive, too - and it shows) production that is based upon a true story.
The film opens in 1961, with a Russian neuclear submarine preparing to leave dock before it is entirely ready to head out. When captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) questions the boat after a test run, he is demoted from command and replaced by Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). While the crew still sees Neeson's character as their commander, they follow Ford's character's orders - which include running the crew through countless drills in preparation for their task, which includes firing a test missle.
In the middle of the night, the core springs a leak and the temperature continues to rise, threatening to set off an explosion that would trigger a war. When the men realize that they need to fix the reactor, they also find that there are no radiation suits on board. Things continue to get far worse instead of better, as technical problems are not solved and crew members who eventually find themselves venturing into the core to make repairs come out horribly ill.
Although there are some areas where "K-19" falls short, I found quite a bit to like about the picture. Although Ford has seemed bored in his last few roles, he's subtle, but intense and effective here. His attempt at a Russian accent is problematic, but I didn't think it was quite as bad as the trailers seemed to indicate. It's also great to see Neeson back to form in a serious dramatic role after looking uncomfortable acting against effects in "Star Wars: Episode 1" and "The Haunting". His performance, as well as some supporting turns by Peter Saarsgard and others, are excellent. Although Neeson and Ford's conflicts in the film are very similar and not quite as fierce or involving as Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman's in "Crimson Tide", Neeson and Ford still are good as captains opposing each other.
Bigelow (former wife of "Titanic" and "Abyss" director James Cameron) continues to make action/dramas that are unlike the progressively louder films that are often produced today. Expertly racheting up the level of tension in the film, the race to fix the core is accompanied by the crew's loyalties continuing to shift away from their new captain and towards their old one. This is a costly production and it shows: famed editor Walter Murch ("Conversation", "Apocalypse Now", "English Patient") does fantastic work keeping most of the picture tight and offering solid forward momentum. Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography masterfully captures the narrow paths inside the ship. Klaus Badelt, whose score was about the only thing I liked in the "Time Machine" remake, provides a score that heightens the emotional impact of the on-screen events.
Still, there are some concerns. The screenplay never defines many of the supporting characters terribly well, although the performances by most elevate the material and make for powerful viewing (the real-life survivors reportedly did not like the portrayal, though). Some areas of the 138-minute picture, such as the first thirty minutes and the closing moments, could use some tightening. While the film seems to be underplaying in the first section, Bigelow expertly and confidently pushes the intensity levels upwards as more problems continue to arise on the ship.
I enjoyed this film. While much was unfortunately made about the film's disapointing financial returns, given the story, genre, release date and competition, I think "K-19" had a very tough road to try and surpass or even near its $100m budget ("Crimson Tide", at about $90m, is still the most successful submarine movie at the box office). Although its grim subject matter may not be for everyone, I hope the film will find a bigger audience on DVD.
VIDEO: "K-19" is presented by Paramount Home Entertainment in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film's cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth ("Fight Club") is masterful, not only capturing the claustrophobic atmosphere of the submarine, but moving with expert speed and grace through the small sets. Paramount's presentation shows it off quite well, as sharpness and detail are still quite pleasing, even in some of the dimly-lit sub interiors.
The only real fault with this presentation is the presence of some minor edge enhancement, which really never became that much of an issue. The print seemed in excellent shape, with maybe only one or two very small specks seen throughout the entire film. No pixelation or other concerns were spotted.
The film's color palette is extremely subdued, but still appeared accurately rendered. Black level was also solid, as well. This is a very fine presentation from Paramount.
SOUND: "K-19" is presented by Paramount in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack is up against some tough competition in the catagory - I consider "U-571" to be one of the finest sound productions of all time and still my favorite suggestion for home theater demo material. "K-19"'s soundtrack does match with "U-571"'s layered, detailed sonic assault, but it still provides a very enjoyable (and occasionally aggressive) sound experience.
Surrounds are put to use several times throughout the film, especially during the sequences where the ship dives and the creaking and groaning of the ship can be heard from the rear speakers. Some other details and ambience are present as well, although this film's soundtrack never reaches the kind of constant ambience and enveloping sound design as that film had. This can be expected though, as this is generally more of a dialogue-driven piece.
Audio quality was excellent, as sound effects were crisply rendered, dialogue was clear and natural-sounding and the score was warm and rich. I would have liked this film's sound design to be even a little more immersive, but it was still quite good, nonetheless.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. Both are pretty soft-spoken, but provide an enjoyable amount of information about the kind of enormous production that they undertook in the making of this film. The two lead the viewer through the production, talking about tidbits such as trying to convey the film's claustrophic visuals while the mechanical set shook to try and recreate the feel of the sub. There's also a lot of chat about how many of the film's larger sequences were created, with both the director and cinematographer clearly retelling many of the smaller details that went into many of the days of work on the film. Later in the track, the director talks about the meetings that she had with the survivors of the "K-19" and the emotional memories that were shared by the real-life crew members. While the low-key nature of the discussion may lose the interest of some, I still found this to be a very insightful track that provided the kind of information about the production I was hoping for.
The Making of "K-19": This is a twenty-minute piece that, like many similar documentaries, starts off rather unpromsingly, with much made about the story of the film those watching the DVD have already seen. However, once it really gets going, I did like seeing many of the behind-the-scenes clips, as they gave a further idea of the kind of size of this production. About halfway through the featurette, the focus turns to how the filmmakers turned an abandoned submarine into a sea-worthy boat, which is impressive to view.
Featurettes: Three shorter featurettes are included - two ("Exploring the Craft: Make-up Techniques" and "Breaching the Hull") that run a little over five minutes and another ("It's in the Details") that runs a bit over eleven. All three are strong - if brief - looks at the kind of research that went into crafting the details of this production. "Breaching the Hull", which looks at the film's visual effects, is especially fascinating to watch.
Trailer: The film's trailer (1.85:1) is included. As with the trailers on most recent Paramount titles, both 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks for the trailer are available.
Final Thoughts: "K-19" is an ambitious, well-made film that offers great performances and direction from Bigelow. While it was overlooked when it was released in the Summer, fans of the genre or those looking for solid dramatic fare should check it out. Paramount's DVD provides excellent audio/video quality, along with some informative supplements. Recommended.
The Film ***