Published on November 7th, 2018 | by Thomas Weinmaster0
Sure, watching Hunter Killer is preferable to being trapped on a torpedoed sub under the icy waters of the Arctic ocean, but not by much.
Making a good submarine movie is a difficult undertaking. A great script and deft direction are critical to making a story about a bunch of men aboard a submerged metal tube entertaining. The filmmakers behind Hunter Killer know this. However, they avoid the pitfalls of the craft not by building a believable story of international intrigue, or through meaningful character development, but by avoiding these things altogether.
This is a submarine movie for people who subsist entirely on five-minute YouTube clips. A submarine greatest hits collection. A checklist of the genre. We get the requisite torpedo attack scene, the running quiet scene (complete with someone dropping a wrench and catching it just before it hits the deck), the almost-mutiny scene, and all manner of technological gadgetry. Unfortunately, it’s all done so poorly as to eliminate any thrill such a collection would inspire. Maybe it’s possible to have a good time with Hunter Killer, but nothing in it holds up to any level of scrutiny from a military, technological, or filmmaking standpoint.
After a short prologue, we are introduced to Joe Glass (Gerard Butler): a career seaman who rose through the ranks on his own merit, not through formal schooling. In his introduction scene, we see Glass hunting elk, and he declines to shoot a buck when he sees that it has a family. Of course this clumsily foreshadows his compassion for all living things, to be tested later on in the movie. Once on the sub, he gives a rousing and oddly rehearsed speech about his unorthodox leadership style, and a passing mention is made to a previous sub disaster, for which Glass holds a memorial coin (another piece of elegant foreshadowing). This sort of shotgun approach to character development is indicative of the entire script. The rest of the cast is introduced with even more reckless abandon, culminating in the ludicrously over the top Admiral (Gary Oldman): a war hawk who spends the whole movie shouting in exasperation while fumbling with his coat buttons.
I’ll spare you the rest of the deep dive details, because the story beats have been covered before. An American sub disappears in Russian waters. An untested, unorthodox new commander on a second sub is sent to investigate. Analysts in Washington uncover larger conspiracy within Russian government. A Navy SEAL team is sent in on land to investigate while the submarine prowls below. Shooting, torpedoes, yelling, and explosions. HALO jumps, underwater minefields, and Gerard Butler mansplaining military tactics to other well-trained sailors. The works.
Not only are characters haphazardly introduced, but they are given little chance to grow throughout the film. At certain points, there are no less than four different plot strands unfolding together, and the narrative jumps between the submarine, the SEAL team, the War Room in Washington, and the Russian base. Add in scenes on a Russian destroyer, and in Russian subs, and we have an incredible number of characters to keep track of (if we care to).
The plot itself introduces elements of convenience at every turn, and the technology in the movie is absolutely ludicrous. While I am not privy to the high-tech wonders available to the US military, the stuff utilized here would make crew members on the USS Enterprise jealous. Every time a problem arises, there’s a something available to easily deal with it.
It’s not just the implausible gadgets that help the story move along. Our characters appear to have superhuman powers of reasoning and deduction. How would Glass know of recent developments in Washington when the sub is out of radio contact a thousand feet underwater? Why would a Russian ship listen to a pirate radio transmission from someone claiming to be their captain and then ignore orders? If you’re bothered by these questions, you’re probably thinking too hard.
So the plot and characters are an affront to screenwriting, but at least we get some good action, right? Wrong. The CGI and physics in the movie are laughable. I’ve seen video game cinematics with more convincing effects. Exterior scenes of the sub maneuvering through tight terrain and avoiding torpedo attacks are all extremely hokey, and the physics of the submarine belie its size. It handles like a Ferrari driven by someone on coke, and it’s treated like one; Glass is extremely reckless considering that the tiniest hull dent could crush them like a tube of toothpaste. Oddly, establishing shots of the Russian and American fleets appear to be stock film footage, and are a jarring transition from the rest of the movie.
Still, the movie gets a couple things right. Set design in the film is great; the submarine interiors look alive and chaotic, and the war rooms in Washington have a surprising air of authenticity given the thin plotting. Most astoundingly, Gerard Butler is a solid casting choice. Despite the narrative issues, he is a good fit for the alternatingly stoic and witty commander. I’ve said before that Butler is the worst mainstream actor working today, but he is not miscast here. There are also a few genuinely great scenes of action within the submarine. One example involves the sub beginning a sharp dive. We get a static shot as the whole set dips in frame. The characters are forced to lean back to compensate as the pitch changes rapidly, as if they were standing on a steep hill. These moments are few and far between, however.
Hunter Killer does provide a few moments of fleeting tension and enjoyment, but the whole exercise is a terrible mess, and collapses under the weight of its logical inconsistencies. The plot is ridiculous, and our characters are essentially cardboard stand-ins, which is a shame given the talent level of some cast members. On top of this, the action shots are laughably bad at points, and the sub appears to be a complete anomaly of physics. Alternately feeling way too cheap and far too expensive, it fills no void and breaks no ground. Unless you’re a fan of Gerard Butler (which you may not want to espouse freely), or a connoisseur of set design, it’s probably best to avoid this one. Sure, watching Hunter Killer is preferable to being trapped on a torpedoed sub under the icy waters of the Arctic ocean, but not by much.