72 Meters (2004)

Today I'll be reviewing a surprisingly good Russian made-for-television movie about love and sex and betrayal and alcohol and highly-explosive underwater mines (yay!). On occasion I like for MMT to feature movies that are more "obscure and hard to find" than "pants shittingly awful", it makes for a more well-rounded site in my opinion. If this review seems to wander a bit it's because my DVD is in the original Russian language (no good to me), but seems to have been overdubbed in either Ukrainian or maybe Polish (not at all helpful), but thankfully has English subtitles (sorta, whoever did the subtitling seems to have been about 30% fluent in English and spells worse than my 6-year old). But still, as long as I can kinda follow along, I'm game for anything.

On to the show!

We open at some unnamed Russian submarine base on the shores on the Barents Sea (Polyarny or Severomorsk) on a cold and chilly day in January. Our movie takes place mostly aboard a certain submarine docked here, a Kilo-class attack boat of the Red Banner Northern Fleet. There was obviously some serious cooperation between this movie's production team and the Russian Navy, who provided an actual working submarine for the filming, plus access to nearly all parts of the sub except the propulsion room. But, then again, the Kilos are mostly old boats from the 1980s with very little cutting-edge technology aboard that you can't find photos and schematics of online. Anyone who knows me knows I have a love of, and a good working knowledge of, various types of military hardware from the Cold War, so anytime I get to see a vintage submarine up close and personal like this it's a treat for me.

Our sub.

On the quay we meet our boat's Captain, a stern but good natured career submariner. The Captain is picky about good penmanship and writing skills, loves his portly wife and still kisses her like they're teenagers, and has a lucky coffee mug that's always in his hand. While not the main character, he's probably the most interesting in terms of personality and charisma.

The Captain is a stickler for proper punctuation.

Early on we see a random shorebird sitting on a pylon near the sub, and a painter accidentally splashes some red paint on the white seagull's back before it flies away. This red-patched bird is a constant fixture from here to the final scene, always flying around, interacting with characters and observing all that is happening above water. This seems to be culturally significant, but if a red (bloody?) seagull has any meaning in a Russian context (other than Chekov), then it's lost on me.

Stained seagull.

Orders come to make ready for a training exercise in a few days. We get some set-up scenes to show us how relaxed and confident the crew is as they get the boat ready to sail, loading up crates of oranges and eggs and rolling in torpedoes on trolleys. There's a lot of dialogue in these shots and as this movie went on I found it hard at times both to block out the Polish dub and to decipher the Englrusski subtitles.


There are a few characters we need to meet first. To start with we are introduced to Fresher, a low-level sailor on his first assignment. Fresher represents the "new Russia", a younger, more idealistic, more connected generation that listens to rap music on iPods and has Justin Timberlake haircuts.

Fresher (love the RN hat).

Fresher's first job is to go get Peter, the boat's navigator, out of the guardhouse where he's been tossed for being drunk on duty. The tall, dark and handsome Peter will be our film's hero, though that term is used loosely here, as by the end, there are a dozen other men who could be considered the "hero" due to their actions in the climax. And I'm ok with this, rarely does one single person rise above the rest in any crisis (Keifer Sutherland exempted).


Next we meet Ivan, another officer on the boat, who is notable for actually owning a car (hey, military service pays squat in Russia). There's clearly some bad blood between Ivan and Peter, but hold that thought for now. Just know that, while Peter is a reckless and insolent drunk, Ivan is a steady, competent naval officer.

Ivan's Volga badly needs a valve job.

And lastly we meet the Doctor, who is a civilian contracted to be the boat's corpsman. The middle-aged, pudgy Doctor formerly worked for the space program, but once that dried up he had to look for work elsewhere. Russia really is full of people with specialist degrees without jobs, sad to say, and that guy flipping your burger in that McDonald's in Moscow might have been a nuclear engineer twenty years ago.

The Doctor, dressed like a longshoreman.

In the only time I really laughed all movie, right before they cast off and go to sea, an old salty officer tells the naive Doctor to break it to the Captain that his "lend-leased latex Norwegian sex dolls" were lost in transit. The Captain is angry for about a second, but then laughs along with the joke, much to the Doctor's confusion.

He has good humor.

As hinted at before, Peter and Ivan have a past that explains their simmering resentment for each other. We learn of this in a series of disconnected flashbacks (with fuzzy, gauzy lens filters and overexposed film). It's the mid 1980s and these two young officers are stationed in the Black Sea Fleet, and by all accounts are the best of friends. That is, until they both fall for the same waifish girl with pretty hair, who they first see on a flowery balcony, wearing a skimpy sundress and reading Maxim Gorky. Nelly is her name and she looks like internet/geek darling Felicity Day, which is a good thing.


Nelly toys with both men for a while, but eventually settles on Ivan, much to Peter's ire. After one last try at wooing her back (shot down), Peter tries to crowbar Ivan away from her by using the time-honored frat boy argument of "bros before hos". When Ivan picks the hot girl over the childhood friend, punches are thrown and the friendship ends. Of course, both men are still in the Navy and since you can't pick your assignments, they both later end up in the Northern Fleet on the same boat.

Sad end.

Years later, Peter is still in love with Nelly, and keeps a photo of her at his bunkside. You'd think that there would be some conflict between these two men, but to the movie's credit the passage of time has dulled the emotions and the men have a grudging respect for each other by now. And that's fine, at least 20 years have passed since the Big Fight, and I think I'd be more ticked off at this movie if they still had the coals burning hot (that's just not how real life works). And Ivan, also to his good credit, never seems to brag or boast that he got the dream woman, so he never really ends up being the "bad guy" in this triangle. Sometimes a guy just gets a lucky break and gets the girl, it doesn't have to mean he did something wrong or underhanded.

Photo memories.

Anyway, the sub's mission in this training exercise is to hunt down a friendly warship off the coast, make a mock attack on it, then avoid detection and destruction for 24 hours before returning to base. And because the Captain knows his stuff, and because a super-quiet diesel-electric Kilo is supremely deadly in the littorals where she can creep along on battery power and use her passive sonar suite to track targets, the sub has little problem stalking the warship and "hitting" her with a torpedo. One thing I learned here, and I'm wondering if it's "artistic license", is that the boat shakes a considerable amount when a torpedo is fired. I've seen a lot of submarine movies in my life and I've never seen one where a torpedo launch could be felt physically throughout the ship like this. If true, then this is one of those little touches of realism that makes a movie like this enjoyable for me (I have odd standards...).

Her target.

We get some scenes aboard the boat here and there, where we learn that the Doctor is nervous but excited, that Fresher is initiated with a glass of salt water on his first dive, that Kilos have a lot more wood paneling than I'd expected, and that you have to be pretty short to be a submariner. One of the officers has a bright orange fish, who is treated like a member of the crew and gets an inordinate amount of screen time, and another has a picture of Heidi Klum in a bikini tapped up over his bunk. I suspect that all submarine crews are the same as, generally speaking, all people are the same no matter where they live.

Oranges keep scurvy away.

Back on the surface, we see that the other warships in the exercise are practicing missile launches nearby. As the red-painted shorebird watches, a cruiser shoots off a missile into the clear, blue sky. The rocket's booster detaches from the warhead bus and falls with a splash into the water (this movie really requires you know something about modern weapons). The heavy metal booster sinks to seafloor, rolls along the bottom, and hits the creaky, rusty mooring chain of an old WWII-era sea mine. The mine breaks free and starts to rise with the current.

The "horns" tell me this is an old style non-magnetic contact mine.

The mine slowly drifts up from the bottom, directly at the sub, which is cruising along near the shore. The mine bounces off the hull once, sways back, hits again, and then detonates in a ferocious explosion. The next 3 minutes are sheer chaos as fires rage, water gushes in, and men die horrible deaths. This scene's editing cuts are well-placed, focusing on individual men in the moment and not on the (admittedly great) special effects work, and it's an exciting sequence to watch.

Submarines and hull breaches leaks don't mix.

A little bit of time on Google will tell you that the seas are still (as of 2011) distressingly full of old mines from wars gone by. There are estimates of 550,000 mines being laid in WWII alone, with less than half recorded as swept. Just ask the guys trying to lay that pipeline along the Black Sea's bottom, they keep running across dozens of old mines. Or the fishermen who drag them up in their nets to disastrous ends, at least one mine is found along the English coast every couple of weeks! Some mines from WWI, a hundred years ago, are still turning up, one just washed up a few years ago on a beach in New Zealand, of all places. Most are inert by now, but even if 1% are active, that's a serious problem.

The more artistic amongst us make baby carriages out of old mines (...furiously searching eBay...).

Also keep in mind the timeframe here. In late 2000, the big Russian submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea under still mysterious circumstances. Rescue teams were not able to reach the wreck in time and, most disturbingly, it was later found that some of the crew survived the sinking, but died a slow death stuck on the bottom of the sea in a crippled boat waiting for rescue that came too late. This was a national tragedy for Russia and was front page news here in America for a month straight before we got bored and went back to concentrating on Britney Spears' boobs. Some press reports from the time blamed an old WWII mine for Kursk's loss, as several were recently found in the area where she was lost. The point is that 72 Meters is clearly playing off those headlines, though in a respectful manner that is not at all trying to sensationalize those events.

Kursk, before her end.

Anyway, back to the movie. The mine tears open a hole in the back half of the sub and it sinks stern first to the bottom of the shallow continental shelf to the titular 72 meters (236 feet). Now 236 feet seems like a lot, but this particular type of sub is 246 feet long, meaning that she sank in waters less than her own length, if she "tipped up on her end" so to speak, there would be 10 feet of her sticking out of the water (going back to the Kursk, that 508 foot long sub sank in just 350 feet of water). You'd think that any survivors could just swim out to the surface, but recall that past 20 feet or so, an unprotected swimmer will get the bends from the nitrogen content and that's not good.

Handy view of our movie's sub.

While 236 feet is deadly for a human, it's not a physical danger to the actual submarine herself. Most modern submarines can operate down to 1,000 or so feet before the pressure crushes the hull (the exact depths are still highly classified numbers). The Kilo seen here is fine down to an officially admitted 820 feet, and probably much farther than that. I'm struggling to think of an example that the layman can recognize, but the famed liner Titanic sat nearly 13,000 feet down before Dirk Pitt and his team bravely raised her in 1976. For those more militarily-inclined, the Japanese battleship Yamato lay sunken at around 1,400 feet until she was recovered by the Earth Defense Force in 2199 and refurbished with Pulse Laser Cannons and Wave Motion Engines to defeat the Gamilon invasion (look, I'm just reporting facts, here).

Of course, Yamato had hot chicks in the crew.

I drifted again, sorry. So the crippled sub is on the bottom now, power is out and most compartments are flooded and water levels are high in those that still have air pockets. We see that Peter survived, as did the young seaman Flesher, and the two of them start swimming from compartment to compartment, trying to find out what happened. Impressively, the two actors do their own stunts here, swimming through dimly lit, debris-filled murky water, struggling through small hatches and companionways. They find the Doctor alive and unhurt, though he's emotionally a wreck. They also find the boat's fish swimming about (the fish actually wriggles through many of the subsequent scenes, a subtle reminder that the oceans do not belong to us lunged humans).


Some really great camera-work here, as the director dipped the camera in the water so that a quarter of the frame is under the surface, which makes you feel like you're in the water yourself. It's an impressive way to draw the viewer into the movie, and I've never seen this particular trick done this effectively before. With the bad lighting, the constant groaning of twisted metal, and the moody music cues, it's quite unnerving.

Dog paddling.

It's not long before our three survivors start finding dead bodies and now they realize it's not a drill and they are in serious trouble. They find the Captain at some point, and respectfully wrap his corpse in a bed sheet (sorry to see him go). The two sailors keep their composure well, but the civilian Doctor is growing increasingly twitchy and unstable. We also learn that he's an ethnic Ukrainian, which doesn't sit well with Peter, who is decidedly Russia-First in his political views (a bit of nationalistic jealousy, perhaps, as Ukraine has done quite well for themselves since independence in the '90s).

That has to be some cold water.

To further this point, we flash back to 1990, when the newly-independent Ukraine was taking over Black Sea Fleet assets from the staggering Russians, who couldn't afford to pay for their upkeep anymore. Former Soviet sailors in Ukrainian bases were asked to swear oaths to the new Ukrainian government or leave the country. The Captain, Ivan, Peter, and a bunch of other officers walk out, marching behind the new CIS flag, refusing to serve their upstart Ukrainian masters. Without giving a history lesson here, the thorny issue of Russia's large Black Sea Fleet and its destabilizing role in the region is still ongoing and poses a major stumbling block to improved relations between Russia and her Black Sea neighbors.

He's talking, but they're not listening.

So, back on the sub, it turns out that there are 10 other men who survived the accident and are now holed up in the unflooded forward torpedo room. Peter, Flesher, and the Doctor eventually make contact with them by tapping on a watertight door. Inside the torpedo room, the men are unsure if they should open the hatch, as it might result in their sanctuary being flooded and them all dying. If I may tangent, when I was 8-years old, my dad took me to see Gray Lady Down, which was also about survivors on a sunken submarine. The scenes of the men helplessly watching their friends drown scared the living hell out of me for years and it might explain why I still get queasy watching these sorts of movies sometimes. Note to parents: don't take your young children to scary movies.

They have all the eggs.

Ivan is here in this group, and as the highest ranking officer present, it's his decision and he votes to take the risk to let the other survivors in. They equalize the pressure between the two compartments and open the hatch. The process is not explained really at all (though what's shown is accurate), but it's nice not to be spoonfed everything once and a while. American movies tend to over-explain everything like we're all still in elementary school, dumbing down technical stuff so as not to confuse us or make us think at all (Michael Bay is great at this, as well as distracting us with boobies when the plot holes start to gape open), so it's nice to see a different style here.

Ivan makes the hard call.

Back on dry land, we reconnect with the still lovely Nelly, who is by now pregnant with her and Ivan's third child. While pleasing to the eye, the actress is really not called upon to do much in this movie, all her scenes are short and sparse on dialogue. She seems to exist here just to have someone for the Russian Navy to lie to about the lost submarine (they tell her everything is fine, nothing happened). Some of this duplicity is surely meant to echo what happened back in 2000 with the Kursk disaster, where the crew's families were deliberately misled by the Navy and the government. This was a major controversy in Russia at the time, one that looked like it was going to bring down the government in an era when a large and restive Russian population was just beginning to find its political voice.

Nelly walks the docks.

Back on the sub, the 13 survivors (out of crew of 52, by the way) take stock of their situation. No emergency signal, no generator power, no radio, they can only knock on the hull and hope they can be heard by sonar. Since they were running silent before the mine hit, no one up top knows exactly where they went down, so finding them will be tough. They are close to the shore, however, so they hope that they can find their own way out of the sub using what they have with them. This echoes the Kursk tragedy, as well, as 23 men survived the initial explosions to gather in that sub's lone undamaged compartment. The hand-written notes they left, found months later when the wreck was salvaged, tell a gut-wrenching story of despair and suffering that will leave you cold and nauseous (I've read several excellent books concerning these 23 men and their last days alive, important and compelling reads, but very difficult to get through emotionally).

For being the youngest, Fresher holds up well.

Ivan and Peter talk out their problems as best they can without actually mentioning the root cause of their animosity (the girl). Peter confides in him that he blames himself for the mess they are in because he stole his grandfather's watch on his deathbed years ago. It seems that in WWII his grandfather helped lay minefields in these very waters, so to Peter's superstitious way of thinking, this is him getting his revenge from the grave (Russians are such downers).

Telling the tale.

To pass the time, Peter tells them all a story about the rough, dark days just after the Berlin Wall fell when the money dried up and the sub crew had to go out and beg local farmers for food. This, sadly, was quite common in post-fall Russia as the economy collapsed and the military's paychecks disappeared. Some men abandoned their units, others sold thermal underwear and attack helicopters on the black market to survive, and it was nearly the turn of the century before things started to improve (by then, though, Russia's navy, in particular, was a rusty wreck). Peter flashes back to when he and the Captain offered to slaughter a cow with a knife for a meal, but couldn't do it. So they put a grenade on the cow's horns and ran away, only to find that the explosion didn't harm the animal, but did make it give more milk (funnier story than I'm making it).

They're not that hungry yet to kill a cow.

As they giggle to relieve the stress, the sub slides a bit backwards towards the edge of an underwater cliff, stopping with the stern hanging over the lip. I've seen this before, in The Abyss? Deep Star Six? Leviathan? One of those movies. In a lot of ways 72 Meters plays up to a lot of the standard submarine movie tropes, but in many important ways, it's the most unique sub movie I've seen. Of course, it's also the only non-American sub movie I've seen, and Hollywood always seems to think we need to be hammered over the head with huge explosions and flying stuntmen all the time. Nice to see a fairly slowly paced, intelligent sub disaster movie.

Almost all the underwater shots are too murky to see more than the outline of the sub, which just adds to the spooky tension.

The next morning the crew makes plans to evacuate. It's then that they discover that all but one of their "breathers", air cartridges that will allow them to swim to the surface, are uncharged and useless. The officer in charge of that detail is one of the 13 survivors and he's confronted by the rest of them. After admitting that he failed miserably in his duty because he was distracted by his cheating wife, he tries to shoot himself with a pistol. He's stopped in time, but the sudden realization that they are not swimming out to safety after all pushes the men over the edge. There is yelling, there is cussing, and Ivan even punches Peter in the nose, but eventually they all calm down (submariners are not known for being loose cannons like 1980's American fighter pilots).

Got to save the oxygen.

As it turns out, one of the breathers is working, and now they have to pick one man to go up to the surface and get help. For an unclear reason, they pick the civilian Doctor to go, as none of the military sailors will agree to leave their comrades behind and Ivan refuses to order any one of them to do so. They put the survival suit on the Doctor and give him an efficient, if quick, lesson on what to do before sticking him in the torpedo tube and closing the door. Watch the Doctor's eyes as they bulge with fear, I feel for him.

Clamp it tight or die.

After crawling out the flooded torpedo tube, the Doctor attaches a long rope on a buoy to an eye-bolt, lets it go and follows the line to the surface. Once he stumbles ashore he tears off his hood and yells to clear the nitrogen from his lungs. After everything these men have endured in the sub below, to see at least one of them finally make it to safety was genuinely heartwarming and the man's expressive scream only punctuates that.

On the beach.

Back on the sub, the other 12 men share the last orange and talk about Shakespeare and Venice and loves waiting to be wooed. The movie ends here, with no real resolution. Since they sank close to port, one assumes that the Doctor brought help, but it's left unanswered. Some will disagree, but I love an ambiguous ending, we don't always need a happy, rose conclusion to every movie (that's an American thing).

Can't help but root for these men.

So, all in all, 72 Meters turned out to be a pretty good movie. Rough in the interpersonal talky parts, and hamstrung by language problems, but rock solid on realism and kept me on the edge of my seat for a lot longer than I expected. If you can find it (good luck), I highly recommend it.

The End.

Written in March 2011 by Nathan Decker.

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