K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER
Reviewed December 29th, 2002 by Brian White
So why are some movies successful, while other movies seem to stall and go away? The person with the answer would definitely be a rich executive in Hollywood. Certainly you can point to the quality of a film; but that does not always work. There have been many great movies that made no money, while films that have no real merit have scored well at the box office. Of course money isn't everything, but Hollywood is a very competitive place. When a movie that you value does not do well, it may bode poorly for similar efforts in the future. K-19: The Widowmaker is a great movie that didn't do very well. It grossed around $30 million, but cost over $100 million to make. There can be endless debates about what went wrong, but all of the elements seemed to be there. You have Harrison Ford doing a great job in his role as a Russian Submarine Commander; you have a talented supporting cast, a great story, and all the superb effects that you expect from a flashy summer movie.
K-19 is the story of the first Soviet Nuclear sub. Racing to compete with the Americans, the Soviets dispatched their first sub in 1961. The sub was not ready, and disaster struck when the nuclear reactor nearly melted down. The movie shows a crew relying on its bravery, and self-sacrifice to avoid starting World War Three. They also must perform a delicate political dance within the Communist Party at the height of its cold-war paranoia.
The sub and the crew are not ready for the difficulties of cold war technology. They are ill equipped and under-trained in all things nuclear. Their solution, the only possible one, is very dangerous. This is a story that must be shared, but the popcorn movie crowds from last summer just didnít seem to care about a Soviet crew being heroic.
Other than the technical and political issues, the story is complicated by a replacement captain (Ford), taking over from a much-loved captain played by Liam Neeson. Neesonís character must balance his loyalty to his beloved crew with his duty as a good Soviet officer.
This movie is filled with quality. Director Kathryn Bigalow went to great lengths to make everything authentic. Ford has been unfairly criticized for his Russian accent. He gets the job done very well. As usual, Neeson disappears into his part. The supporting cast is very strong.
The 2.35:1, anamorphic transfer is quite lovely. The movie, due to the cold surroundings, often has a bluish tint. This movie was quite difficult to light and shoot, given the enclosed, full-scale model of the submarine, but everything looks very good indeed. There are beautiful interiors, filmed in Russia, and some great exteriors, filmed in Halifax and Winnipeg. All in all, this movie boasts wonderful cinematography. The transfer on the disc is fantastic.
Is there anything cooler than the sound mix for a submarine movie? Every bump and bend of the hull echoes around you. When you see an exterior of the submerged ship, you have bubbles, some really deep bass, and the propeller sound around you in the mix. Within the ship, there are endless metallic moans that bend their way around the room. The sound mix of the film goes beyond the expected pleasantries of the boat. Music mixes beautifully into the film, especially when the sailors enter the nuclear compartment. Music is also quite interesting during the scene where the sailors play soccer on the ice. Listen as well to the voices through the mix. Very good.
Director Kathryn Bigalow has plenty of insight about the movieís evolution and themes to share on the feature-length commentary. Also on the track, she and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth share plenty of information about the research, and pre-production trips to Russia. An HBO-type making-of featurette is included, as well as a short film about miniatures, and also about the extreme level of verisimilitude that was accomplished on this film as the result of research.
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