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K-19: The Widowmaker By Brian Jacks
Who doesn’t like a submarine movie? That’s what Paramount had in mind when they furnished director Kathryn Bigelow with over 100 million dollars to create an undersea adventure starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. K-19: The Widowmaker turned out to be somewhat of a financial disappointment, but when all’s said and done we’re left with a decent and often audacious film that’s now seeing its DVD release in a tidy little package.
Based on a true story, K-19 takes place at the height of the 1960s Cold War when the superpowers are literally poised a button’s push away from oblivion. Anxious to gain any added footing it can, Russia launches its flagship nuclear submarine, the K-19, amid a rash of foretelling incidents (almost a dozen people loose their lives before the thing even leaves dry-dock). Brushing aside concerns by Mikhail Polenin, the boat’s executive officer (Neeson), that the submarine is not yet ready for duty, the Soviet Navy assigns hard-nose veteran Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) to take the reins and get the sub out on patrol. Fast on their way to American waters, the vessel’s nuclear reactor begins to leak, which Captain Planet taught us is bad and kills fish. With time running out, Vostrikov and his crew must pull an Apollo 13 or risk a devastating explosion the likes of which could trigger a war.
Once the countdown begins, the film is essentially transformed from a military tale to more of an emotional-based roller coaster, with a lot of shouting and anxiety as the crew struggles to save their lives. Bigelow does an admirable job of consistently keeping the reactor breech front and center, instead of deviating into confusing subplots (although the story drifts momentarily for a short mutiny). Much like Das Boot, K-19 is filled with tight interior shots that heighten tension as well as throwing audiences right into the action. Personal conflict between Ford and Neeson’s characters is done well and the two play nicely off each other, although a lack of deeper characterization unfortunately hampers that aspect as well as the film in general. In the end, the film’s most noteworthy performance ends up coming from Peter Sarsgaard as the boat’s young nuclear propulsion officer.
Much has been made of the phony Russian accents the crew wields, in particular Harrison Ford. Now granted, many of the accents are generally sub-par (ha, get it?), and Ford drifts between thick and light accents or none at all, but it’s not that detrimental. Anyway, when all’s said and done, I’d rather have him doing unconvincing accents than another movie with Anne Heche, so more power to you, Indiana.
While it runs a bit long at almost 2 ½ hours, the film ultimately winds up being an interesting human drama made only more remarkable by the fact that it’s a true story.
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K-19: The Widowmaker is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Like most Paramount releases of major feature films, the print is fundamentally flawless with no compression artifacts noticed. Very minor edge enhancement and a couple instances of grain notwithstanding, this is an excellent transfer. With most of the action occurring in the recesses of the submarine, blacks and darker colors are used heavily throughout, but all remain solid. As briefly mentioned above, the cinematography (done by Fight Club’s Jeff Cronenweth) is very well done, with sweeping interior shots that reinforce the boat’s cramped and hectic environment.
K-19 is delivered with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0 audio tracks. Considering many audiophiles use U-571, one of the most recent submarine films, as a reference piece, K-19 was bound to be judged by a series of harsh criteria. Luckily, this release doesn’t disappoint. Surrounds are put to very good use, whether it be the creaking of the submarine’s hull as it heads towards crush depth or the stomping of the crew as they rush towards general quarters. In one of the film’s most memorable audio moments, the K-19 blows tanks and blasts through the Arctic ice, creating a sound maelstrom as the bass shakes the room. Musically, composer Klaus Badelt gives us a Russian-flavored score that mostly sits in the background.
On the supplement side, while K-19 didn’t exactly achieve blockbuster status, a fair number of extras have been included on the DVD. Headlining these is a feature-length commentary by director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. While not very screen-specific, the track includes a formidable discussion of the production aspects of the film, including what went into making it as well as the casting. A fair bit is touched upon about the difficulties in bringing a submarine movie to fruition, as well as how to shoot it convincingly. Given Cronenweth’s visual talents, it’s especially interesting to hear his take on photography, particularly considering the confined nature of this K-19.
Next up we have the first of four featurettes. Aptly titled “The Making of K-19,” this is a twenty-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Essentially a promotional tool (equipped with its own booming narrator), it’s mostly a standard fluff piece featuring interviews with the cast and crew, although as it wears on it also includes a look at the production side. Most interesting is how the crew transformed an old and decrepit Juliet submarine into the much larger K-19.
The other three featurettes are production-oriented. In “Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques,” we get a five-minute look at how the severe radiation burns were accomplished, and how due to sensitivity issues the full extent of radiation sickness was not portrayed. “Breaching the Hull” also runs five minutes, and deals exclusively with the aforementioned running of the K-19 through the ice sheet. Featuring a discussion with the visual effects supervisor, we see how miniatures were used to accomplish this rather stunning sequence. Lastly, in the twelve-minute “It’s In The Details,” we’re shown just how much trouble the crew went through to ensure authenticity. By assembling the original factory blueprints and a team of former Soviet navy experts, the production team assures us they worked meticulously to recreate the real K-19, and we have no reason to doubt them.
Closing out the extras is the film’s theatrical trailer.
The Movie: B-. A decent submarine film that features a true human drama.
The Look: A-. Spot-on cinematography combined with an almost-flawless transfer.
The Sound: B+. A handful of scenes allow for an explosive audio experience.
The Extras: B. An extensive look at the film’s production aspects make these worth checking out.
Overall: B.K-19: The Widowmaker is an intriguing movie filled with a couple sensational scenes.