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Kathryn Bigelow
Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Christian Camargo, Joss Ackland
Writing Credits:
Christopher Kyle

Fate has found its hero.
Box Office:
Budget $100 million.
Opening weekend $12.778 million on 2828 screens.
Domestic gross $35.168 million.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Surround
French Dolby Surround

Runtime: 137 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 12/10/2002

• Audio Commentary With Director Kathryn Bigelow and Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth
• ”The Making of K-19: The Widowmaker
• “Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques” Featurette
• “Breaching the Hull” Featurette
• “It’s in the Details” Featurette
• Theatrical Trailer


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K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 9, 2002)

Harrison Ford as a Russian – and a fairly nasty one at that? Now I’ve seen everything! I suppose if the relentlessly Scottish Sean Connery – Indiana Jones’ dad, after all – could portray a Russkie sub commander, then an American icon like Junior deserved a shot at the borscht-loving helm as well.

At least Ford bothered to attempt the appropriate accent, though not with the greatest success. K-19 takes place in 1961 at the height of the cold war between the US and the USSR. The authorities in the Soviet Union want to use a new sub called the K-19 as a deterrent to any potential US nuclear attacks; it’ll include a batch of its own weapons and will take up residence close enough to the US seaboard to use them if necessary.

Soviet officials set a timeline to get the K-19 into the sea, but Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) can’t get the sub into the desired shape by that time. The authorities then put Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) in charge of the boat and subordinate Polenin as his second in command. Many of the sailors remain loyal to Polenin and resent Vostrikov’s presence, and new captain’s seemingly harsh and hard driving nature does nothing to endear him to them.

Vostrikov obsesses over drills, many of which seem to actively interfere with the running of the sub. Despite a long list of snafus, the K-19 eventually completes its initial mission to launch a test missile, and the authorities order them to take up patrol along the east coast of the US. Along the way, the nuclear reactor ruptures, and its temperature starts to increase. This could end in an explosive disaster, so some of the men need to endure the radiation in that area to pour water on it and cool it. Eventually, radiation contaminates the entire sub, but Rostrikov and Polenin don’t agree on the appropriate course of action. Tension increases between them as the sub’s difficulties continue to mount.

I think K-19 is the first film to pair leads from the first and second Star Wars trilogies. Unfortunately, I guess audiences didn’t care about seeing Han Solo and Qui-Gon Jinn together on-screen, for K-19 tanked at the box office; it earned a mere $35 million, which barely covered one-third of its $100 million budget.

That’s too bad, for K-19 actually offers a pretty compelling experience. The story comes straight from actual occurrences, and that helps ground the movie. Admittedly, it’d be an interesting tale even if it enjoyed no basis in reality, but the knowledge that the film took its cue from history increases the tension.

Despite the iffiness of his Russian accent, Ford proves nicely grounded and gruff as Rostrikov. It does seem odd to see such an American icon play this sort of role, but he manages to make the Captain come across as cold and harsh, which appears appropriate for the part. Eventually, the role does essentially fit the standard heroism of many Ford characters, but Rostrikov takes an unusual path to get there, and Ford creates a fairly interesting personality with him. (And to be fair to Harry, a lot of the actors display less than convincing Russian accents, so his doesn’t stand out as particularly weak.)

If forced to pick flaws in K-19, its length would provide one of them. At 137 minutes, it moves a little more slowly than I’d like, and it probably could have lost a bit of that length and run more tightly. I also think it seems somewhat derivative of other films. Due to the tension between the lead officers and the inappropriately timed drills, K-19 shows some links to Crimson Tide. It also displays a weird connection to another Paramount film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Both flicks open with drills that we’re clearly supposed to see as real, and they also include notable scenes of heroism that involve radiation poisoning. I doubt these similarities are intentional, but they still gave me a weird sense of déjà vu.

Nonetheless, I generally liked K-19: The Widowmaker. It provided a fairly taut and tense tale that seems nicely executed across the board. The actors fill their roles well and director Kathryn Bigelow helps create a believable sense of place and time. K-19 consistently offers a compelling experience.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio A- / Bonus B

K-19: The Widowmaker appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though generally very attractive, I saw more defects in the picture of K-19 than I expected for a brand-new, big-budget flick.

Sharpness consistently appeared solid. The movie seemed crisp and well defined from start to finish, as I noticed virtually no instances of softness or fuzziness. Jagged edges and moiré effects also created no concerns, though I did notice a smidgen of edge enhancement. Print flaws looked a bit heavier than I’d like for such a new movie. Unsurprisingly, a little grain showed up in some low-light interiors, but I also noticed occasional examples of specks and grit as well as a scratch and a streak or two.

A very dark film, K-19 featured a low-key and restricted palette. Really, the only example of vivid colors I recall came from the scene when one of the sailors saw his girlfriend on his way to the sub. Red and blue lighting also played an important part at times, and the DVD kept them tight and distinct. Otherwise, the film stayed almost monochromatic most of the time. Black levels seemed nicely deep and dense, while shadow detail looked clean and accurate. With so many low-light sequences, those needed to appear clear and visible, and that occurred. Truthfully, most of K-19 presented a fine image, but the surprising prevalence of print issues knocked down my grade to a still positive “B”.

I encountered no such problems with the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of K-19. It provided a vibrant and involving piece of work at all times. The soundfield spread through all five channels nicely, as it created a clean and encompassing sense of environment. The segments on the sub came to life well, as they included realistic effects that matched the setting; the pressure the audio demonstrated during the very deep dive piece seemed nearly unbearable. Of course, the film’s louder sequences all kicked into action neatly. For example, when the sub broke through the ice, it did so with a bold sonic impact. The soundfield used all five speakers appropriately and logically.

Audio quality also came across as positive. Speech seemed natural and warm, with no issues related to intelligibility or edginess. Music appeared bright and dynamic. The score seemed distinct and lively at all times. Effects sounded clean and accurate, and they packed a nice punch when necessary. Bass response came across as deep and tight throughout the film. Ultimately, the audio of K-19 helped complement the action.

K-19 tosses in a reasonable roster of extras. We start with an audio commentary from director Kathryn Bigelow and director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, both of whom sit together for this running, screen-specific piece. The technical emphasis of the track makes it a little dry at times, but the pair prove to be reasonably engaging most of the time. They discuss the challenges they experienced via their dealings in Russia as well as many issues related to the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process. At times, they indulge in too much praise of the other participants, but generally K-19 features a fairly interesting and informative commentary.

After this we locate a series of video programs. The Making of K-19: The Widowmaker runs 20 minutes, 15 seconds and features the usual mix of movie clips, shots from the set, and interviews. We get remarks from director Bigelow, actors Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford, Peter Sarsgaard, Steve Nicolson, Christian Camargo, Arsenty Sydelnykov, producers Christine Whitaker, Edward S. Feldman, and Joni Sighvatsson, writer Christopher Kyle, marine coordinator Lance H. Julian, assistant marine coordinator Harry L. Julian, production designer Michael Novotny, and art director Arvinder Grewal. “Making” tells us the plot as well as notes about the cast, the Russian locations, information related to the recreation of the sub, and the attention to detail for the film. Though still promotional in nature, “Making” includes a fair amount of good information, and it provides a superficial but generally entertaining look at the production.

Next we find a featurette entitled Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques. It lasts five minutes, 27 seconds and covers two topics: radiation effects and old-age makeup. We hear from Harrison Ford, special effects make-up artist Gordon Smith and make-up artist Michael Laudata. For the most part, we listen to the make-up guys chat about the work while we watch them do it. I don’t recommend you examine the radiation piece while you eat – I made that mistake – but this piece seems tight and informative.

For notes about some of the visual effects, we can check out Breaching the Hull, a five-minute and 10-second featurette. It covers the creation of the scene in which the K-19 busts through the ice, and it shows lots of good material from the miniature shoot. We also hear comments from visual effects supervisor Steven Rosenbaum and miniatures director of photography Peter Field. The show demonstrates the methods used for this kind of material nicely, and the program delves into its specific topic well.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer - presented non-anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound – the DVD finishes with It’s in the Details. This featurette fills 11 minutes and 51 seconds as it looks at the filmmakers’ emphasis on reality. We hear from Kathryn Bigelow, Harrison Ford, actors Peter Sarsgaard and Peter Sebbings, director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, property master Deryck Blake, production designer Karl Juliusson, technical advisor Captain Sergei Aprelev, art director Arvinder Grewal, and producer Joni Sighvatsson. They discuss the research that went into the film plus how they built the sets based on the original specs, a visit to the actual K-19, “physicalized” rehearsals, the training through which the actors went, and a few other elements. At times this program feels a little self-aggrandizing, but it still aptly illustrates all the work that went into the film, and it adds some valuable material.

Though audiences mostly ignored it, K-19: The Widowmaker offers a fairly entertaining and provocative piece of work. It gives us a tense and edgy tale that involves a near-disaster from the past and generally covers this material in a vivid and engrossing manner. The DVD features mostly positive picture with excellent sound and a moderately small but useful package of extras. If you like historical drama with a little action tossed in for good measure, you should give K-19 a look.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.754 Stars Number of Votes: 61
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