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Paramount Studios presents
"In 1961, Americans forward deploy nuclear submarines within range of Leningrad and Moscow. Powerful men on both sides believe war is inevitable. It is only a question of when. And who will strike first."
DVD ReviewWhen I first heard about this film, just prior to its theatrical release in 2002, I thought it was going to be an action-packed mountain climbing movie, à la Eiger Sanction, Cliffhanger or Vertical Limit. Apparently I was thinking of K2, which is the second highest peak in the world, and generally regarded as the most difficult and dangerous of all mountains. Well, there are no mountains in this one, and little did I know it was actually a "submarine" movie, and even that bit of clarity is not a completely accurate nor fair description of what K-19: The Widowmaker is really all about.
While 95% of the film is in fact set in the cramped, sweaty quarters of a Soviet nuclear-powered submarine smack dab in the middle of the Cold War in 1961, this is less a true war film than it is a drama about courage, danger and self-sacrifice. If you're expecting a tense military battle epic, full of depth-charges like U-571 or even the granddaddy of submariner flicks Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, you may find yourself watching this one and being momentarily perplexed at the actual absence of onscreen war action.
K-19: The Widowmaker marks the return of director Kathryn Bigelow, a person not afraid to take conventional film scenarios and alter them slightly to make them her own (as in Near Dark and Strange Days). She does it again here, taking real life events and presenting them within the framework of what could have traditionally been more of a straight-forward war film, and instead almost isolates the submarine from the rest of the world, and slowly unfolds an alarming story that may have brought the world closer to World War III than many may have ever realized.
Liam Neeson is Polenin, the Captain of the Soviet navy flagship submarine the K-19, well-liked by the crew. When a training drill is failed miserably early in the film, Polenin is demoted to Executive Officer status, and replaced by stern disciplinarian Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). The K-19 is set to leave on sea trials in less than a month, and despite Polenin's protests that the ship is unsafe and will never be ready, Vostrikov is under orders to launch a dummy test missile from the sub near a NATO base in American waters in order to announce to the world that the Soviets could launch a missile attack on US soil, if needed.
Unlike during the era of the faceless enemy in war epics during the 1950s and '60s, it has become acceptable for films to portray "the enemy" as likeable, and Bigelow does that here, filling the sub with a likeable crew of young sailors who are alternatingly brave, scared and undeniably patriotic. Once you dance around the flood of occasionally bad Boris Badenov accents, you realize that the zeal of Vostrikov and the fears of the crew are not strictly Soviet, and that their actions are not bound necessarily by their nation of origin.
This isn't really an action or war film, but rather a film with action elements set in a submarine during wartime. The story is compelling, and even the tried and true submarine film elements we've seen before (the really, really deep dive that is considered "risky," the officer with a girl back home, the loyal crew) seem palatable here. The film stalls a bit during the final moments, when Bigelow attempts to attach a more poignant, formulaic coda to the story that seems somehow forced and out of place.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: K-19: The Widowmaker is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and except for the drag of some occasional edge enhancement, looks quite good. Colors are icy and rather subdued (owing more to intentional dramatics than a transfer flaw), but the black levels are exceptionally deep and luxurious. This is key, as much of the film is set in the dimly sub itself, and the strong shadow delineation reveals quite a bit of image detail that would have been lost on a lesser transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Mention a modern-day submarine DVD that showcases the full capability of 5.1 Dolby Digital surround, and it is likely that U-571 will come to most people's mind. While K-19: The Widowmaker comes with a very nice-sounding 5.1 track, it doesn't compare to the wall-rattling of U-571. This particular mix favors subtle rear channel cues, and when it is used it is quite effective, though not as inherently thunderous. During the standard deep dive sequence, the creaks and pops of the sub reverb around the fronts and rears, creating a soundfield that adds to the onscreen fears of the crew.
Dolby 2.0 tracks in English and French are also provided, but have a noticeable and expected lack of depth.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Kathryn Bigelow, Jeff Cronenweth
Layers Switch: 01h:13m:32s
Extras Review: How are the extras? Not bad, actually. Paramount has provided as the centerpiece a full-length, scene-specific commentary track from director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. I am a huge, huge fan of Bigelow's work, but her commentary tracks are a little on the dry side (no more disappointing than on Near Dark), though being teamed with the (at times) equally low-key Cronenweth seems to pull her out of her shell a bit. The two address shooting in Russia and the challenges of filming open water footage, but much of the worthwhile content (like the info about the blue glow of the radioactive water) is found more concisely on the accompanying featurettes. They avoid describing what's happening on screen, and spend their time discussing the creation and development of the story from a technical standpoint.
The Making of K-19: The Widowmaker (20m:18s) is the longest of the four featurettes, and ironically the least compelling. This is your typical mix of film clips and talking heads, and only becomes interesting during the segment on how the filmmakers had to retrofit an old Russian sub by adding 100 feet to its length.
The brief Exploring the Craft: Makeup Techniques (05m:28s) highlights the radiation makeup effects of Gordon Smith, who also worked with Bigelow on Near Dark. Breaching the Hull (05m:07s) is centered on visual effects supervisor Steven Rosenbaum, and his work on the development of the miniature footage used during the sequence where the K-19 breaks through a thick layer of ice. The featurettes conclude with It's in the Details (11m:48s), which was my favorite of the bunch. Here we learn about how the "benchmark of Das Boot" was the influence to create an accurate and detailed submarine film, down to using the original K-19's actual blueprints. It's here that we also get an explanation of what was used to create the eerie, blue radioactive water. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Though it runs over 2 hours, the film is only cut into 16 chapters, and includes optional English subtitles.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsHere's a sweaty, submarine-in-peril film based on a true story, and director Kathryn Bigelow paints on the drama with broad strokes, all in a nuclear-powered tube deep in the ocean. Harrison Ford, who served as executive producer, plays against type as a hard-assed Soviet captain who nearly pushed the world over the brink into all-out nuclear war.
Not as big and noisy as U-571, this one is more drama than war horse. A solid 5.1 surround mix and some well-made featurettes make K-19:The Widowmaker worthy of a rental at the very least.
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