Lauren Miller ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Think about the last military commercial you saw on television, for the Army Reserves or the Air Force. You know the ones, with the tight camera angles and tense music and general sense of anxious awe. Watch one of them, right now, on YouTube. It’ll give you the same experience of sitting through Hunter Killer but save you about two hours of your life.
The movie begins with an attempted military coup in Russia and features three separate plotlines about the US’ attempt to rescue the Russian President and prevent World War III. One follows submarine Captain Joe Glass (Butler), who doesn’t play by the rules, as he sneaks into Russian waters to investigate a submarine disappearance and gets roped into extracting Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko). Another follows Navy Seal Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens), who doesn’t play by the rules, on the Zakarin extraction mission on the ground in Russia. The third sees Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) and Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini), who don’t play by the rules, as they fight with Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Donnegan (Oscar Winner, yes seriously, Gary Oldman) to coordinate this rescue mission and avoid firing missiles.
But really, it’s just about men, almost exclusively white, gritting their teeth in close-ups to show the weight of their responsibilities and demonstrate their courage in facing down this tense crisis. There’s yelling about who’s in charge and posturing about who’s the toughest and plenty of manly comedy about how dumb it is to be afraid of things and how hot Paul Martinelli’s (Zane Holtz) sister is. None of them play by the rules, but all do the right thing and never ever make a mistake, so they can pat each other on the back and receive praise at the end of the day. Hunter Killer might as well be called Toxic Masculinity: the Movie.
But this is kind of what people expect from these action military movies. The ideas presented will be based on old-fashioned notions of America’s ability to solve any problem with military strategy and, if that fails, massive guns. The characters will be white, male, and solemnly serious because not showing emotions is how they demonstrate strength (outside of those massive guns). The performances, despite the lack of character motivation or emotion, will be contrived and wooden and completely unbelievable. The plot will somehow be both thin and convoluted, buried under overly technical, cliched, and incomprehensible dialogue. All of this will, ultimately, not matter because you’re really just here to watch some explosions and clap at how brave these men, whose names you don’t remember and were possibly never told, are.
Except, Hunter Killer can’t even do the mindless explosion part right. From the first scene, they crank the tension up to an eight and never drop back down. The score is a relentless barrage of bass drops, techno screeches, and uplifting piano meant to build on the awe of a courageous moment. Director Donovan Marsh throws out every trick he has – tracking shots, spinning cameras, drones, crash zooms, low angles, underwater drones, high angles, close-ups of military men restraining their emotions, and one slow-motion shot of a wrench – to make sure you understand at all times that what you’re watching is VERY important. Every scene is designed like a climax, so it’s impossible to tell what actually matters and, after a certain point, what’s even going on. Sure, it’s fun to laugh at and turn your brain off for about forty-five minutes. But by the time the warship shows up and you realize there’s still half an hour to go, you’re just exhausted.
There’s more to complain about, certainly. Exactly three women have speaking roles in this film, there’s no logic to determining what lines from Russian characters are spoken in Russian and what lines are spoken in poorly accented English, the underwater shots are murky to the point of incoherence, the special effects are insulting to the audience, and I could go on. But that’s all secondary, the misshapen sprinkles on top of a rotten cupcake. All they do is distract from the horrid core of what Hunter Killer really is.
Hunter Killer is an overly nationalistic, blindly support-the-troops film, that shows how America can be restrained and non-violent militarily, while still being badass and saving the day. Its message seems to be a progressive and palatable one of pacifism, peace, diplomacy. But this is only a facade, a passing plot point on the way to the last half-hour’s cartoonishly absurd shoot-outs.
At the end of the day, the bad Russians have been shot and bombed and obliterated by missiles, while our American heroes have saved the few good Russians and stand victorious. Not out of any moral superiority, not because they did the right thing in remaining as non-violent as possible, but because not striking first gave them a pragmatic advantage. Because rescuing survivors of a Russian submarine gives them insider information necessary to survive. Because saving the Russian President gives them political power and an upper hand on the bad Russians. In the end, it’s not a lack of violent action that wins the day. It’s the strategic application of violence that only American military good-old-boys can provide that guides us to victory.
Hunter Killer isn’t quite a propaganda film; a film has to be coherent and comprehensible to be propaganda. But hearing the way people cheered in the final scenes, it’s dangerously close.
Overall Grade: D
Watch The Trailer: