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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Kathryn Bigelow’s submarine thriller deserved better than a box-office tanking

Illustration for article titled Kathryn Bigelow’s submarine thriller deserved better than a box-office tanking

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: About a year ago, we singled out some of our favorite unloved summer blockbusters. With the event-movie season upon us again, it’s time for the sequel.


K19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Though it sank like a stone—or a doomed Russian submarine, if you like—at the box office, Kathryn Bigelow’s based-on-real-events K-19: The Widowmaker remains an undervalued and gripping addition to the deep-sea subgenre. Proficiently scripted by Christopher Kyle, Bigelow’s thriller functions like three related films in one. The first describes the famed Russian sub’s 1961 exercise to test a nuclear warhead in order to scare the Americans into not firing on Moscow. The second goes into ensuing efforts to seal a reactor leak before it destroys the vessel. In the third, the leak reappears, resulting in a dilemma for Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), who must either abandon ship and surrender to the Americans, or embark on a suicide mission to prevent an explosion that could begin World War III.

All of K-19’s narrative stages are written with a minimum of exposition, so that the film defines its characters not through words but actions. At the center of its drama is the taut push-pull between Vostrikov and his right-hand man, executive officer Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), who had been K-19’s prior commander before being relieved of duty. He immediately bristles at Vostrikov’s stern leadership methods, which involve risky training maneuvers and punishing drills.

Through it all, Bigelow evokes a sense of towering scale in impressive crane shots of the sub’s exterior, and of claustrophobic tension as her camera urgently navigates the vessel’s cramped corridors and doorways. Never one to show off in her cinematography, Bigelow eschews flash at every turn, favoring taut close-ups of her sterling cast. That group includes an impressive Peter Sarsgaard as a wet-behind-the-ears nuclear-reactor expert, but is ultimately dominated by Ford and Neeson. The former’s gruff sense of certainty clashes with the latter’s fatherly, level-headed compassion. Their at-odds dynamic invigorates the suspenseful plotting of K-19. The result is a shrewd and stirring portrait of soldiers’ duty to country, cause, and comrades.

Availability: K-19: The Widowmaker is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix, and can be rented or purchased through the major digital services.