It has always seemed to me that making a film that takes place primarily in submarines would be simple. Not necessarily easy, but in terms of designing sets and filming, it wouldn’t be a complicated project to undertake. Build a couple of sets (one for the good guys, one for the villains, each colored differently), and then either use CGI or film miniatures so you can constantly remind the viewer that they are, in fact, in a submarine, and it is making progress.
The Hunt for Red October takes this formula and adds in a fun cat-and-mouse storyline. The villains aren’t even really characters that we see, for most of the time, yet global war is the consequence for failure. Sure, most of the film takes place in one of two submarines, but the dramatic irony that we get from knowing what’s taking place in both, instead of just one like the characters are subjected to, is incredibly satisfying. Watching them attempt to figure out what we know and are yelling at them is engaging, especially when some of the characters are trying to sway our heroes away from the truth.
Our film takes place in the mid-1980s, where war between the Soviet Union and the United States was still very much a possibility. A Soviet submarine has gone missing. Its captain: Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, not sounding in the least bit Russian). Ramius is apparently something of a legend in the submarine world, being at sea more than 40 years and knowing every trick in the book. The submarine he has taken, Red October, has state-of-the-art technology; it can move almost silently thanks to something referred to as a caterpillar drive. Sonar can’t detect it. It can get close enough to the U.S. coast to launch missiles without any warning.
Obviously, such a machine can’t be allowed to operate. The Americans think that he’s going to start a war, so they launch a team to try to locate it. Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), on the other hand, thinks that maybe Ramius is planning to defect instead. Ryan, an analyst, met the Captain once before, and has also a lot of research on him. He’s given three days to prove his theory, although how he’s going to do that is left up to him. The hunt is on, which makes the film’s title quite accurate.
We know the truth, as Ramius told us and the other higher ranking members of his crew. After killing the assistant that was sent to make sure that he follows orders (procuring the second key needed to launch the missiles in the process), we learn that defecting is his ultimate goal. He misses the peace that comes from fishing, and assumes that America will be a place to allow him that sanctuary. The other Soviets don’t know his plan, though, assuming that he’ll single-handedly start a war with this top-secret prototype ship.
I’ll recap in case you’re lost. The Americans and Soviets are both trying to find Red October because they think it threatens world peace. Ramius and some of the crew of the submarine want to defect to America, while the only American that believes this is also the case is Jack Ryan. Also, many members on-board Red October don’t know of Ramius’ plan, and will somehow have to be removed from the ship. Safely, though, as Ramius isn’t a bad person, even if more than half of the cast believes he is. Only the audience knows everything — all of the little intricacies — and only we can piece everything together.
Putting together a complex narrative while characters are forced to stay almost solely in different submarines is difficult, or at least, it should be. Connery and Baldwin don’t even get to meet until very late into the picture, and communication between all of the parties involved (Ryan, Ramius, the Americans, and the Soviets) is sparse at best. Yet, because we have smart characters, they’re able to piece different sources of information together in order to figure out what to do next. There are few rash, illogical decisions here, which is always nice to see in a film like this, especially when global war could happen with the slightest misstep. Or at least, everyone thinks that war is what could very easily happen.
The Hunt for Red October is both a fun and involving film. Reveals happen, but they’re more for the characters than for us. What we’re here to see are not twists, but reactions to these twists. If something isn’t as it seems for the characters, and they learn this, what will they do next? How will they combat this new challenge? It’s very exciting and there were very few dull moments while the film was playing.
Joining Baldwin and Connery is Scott Glenn as a Commander on one of the submarines, James Earl Jones as a CIA Director, as well as Tim Curry, Courtney Vance and Stellan Skarsgård as other members of the various submarines. That’s a pretty solid cast, and they all bring something to their role. Connery has the screen presence to be menacing, but also works effectively as a good guy. Baldwin’s turn is especially good, while the other roles are mostly background jobs.
The Hunt for Red October is a very enjoyable film taking place in some of the least interesting sets imaginable. But the story is complex and well-told, the characters interesting, and the dramatic irony created is always satisfying. The effects used to create the outside shots of submarines underwater didn’t look very great, and I wanted more from the supporting cast, but on the whole, this is a fun film and comes highly recommended.