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True disaster revealed in Bigelow’s “K-19: The Widowmaker”

Updated: Apr 12


Harrison Ford plays Soviet Navy Captain Alexei Vostrikov, of the top-secret ballistic missile submarine K-19. During its little-known maiden voyage in 1961, the nuclear reactor started to melt down. In the North Atlantic, a Soviet submarine came to the rescue as a U.S. Navy helicopter circled above.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)



4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray; 2002; PG-13 for disturbing images


Best extra: The ‘Making of’ featurette explores a previously secret Soviet military headquarters in Moscow.


EARLY ON during Vladimir Putin’s less authoritarian second term as President of Russia, director/producer Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) headed to the old U.S.S.R. to film “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a Cold War thriller about a top-secret Soviet submarine and its doomed crew. Despite critical praise and appealing stars, (Harrison Ford as Captain Alexei Vostrikov and Liam Neeson as Captain Mikhail Polenin) Paramount Studios and National Geographic Society couldn’t entice enough moviegoers during the summer of 2002 to keep “K-19” from being a box office disaster – especially with a production budget of nearly $100 million.


The film was developed after a 1996 National Geographic documentary on K-19’s little-known maiden voyage in 1961. As the sub headed toward the United States to aim its nuclear arsenal toward Washington D.C. and New York City, the unthinkable happens: One of the reactors begins to meltdown. Seven sailors give their lives trying to save the Soviet’s first ballistic missile submarine and to keep the Atlantic waters from an environmental catastrophe. Within a few years, 20 more died from radiation.


The crew quickly named the K-19 “The Widowmaker.” Four men died during construction, five from fumes sealing the tanks; plus the doctor, who was hit by a truck along the dock and killed. Also, during the commissioning ceremony, the champagne bottle didn’t break – a true sign the submarine was cursed.

(1) Liam Neeson plays Captain Mikhail Polenin, the original commander of K-19. (2&3) During a missile procedure test run a piece of equipment sparks and Capt. Polenin is relieved of his duties. (4-6) Capt. Alexei Vostrikov gets his orders from the Soviet Naval high command. They pinpoint the location where K-19 will surface in the Arctic and test-fire an unarmed ballistic missile.


“K-19” joins a long list of classic submarine movies: Wolfgang Petersen’s German World War II film “Das Boot” (1981); “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel with Sean Connery as Soviet Captain Marko Ramius; “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1958) with legendary actors Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster as rival officers during WWII, and, similarly, “Crimson Tide” (1995) with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. “U-571” (2000) is loosely based on the Allied capture of the German Enigma code machine, while “The Command” (2018), another true story of a Russian sub, shows how half its crew are killed after an explosion, followed by their refusal of assistance from NATO ships.



The enclosed Blu-ray carries over all of the extras from previous editions, including a commentary (also available on the 4K disc) with Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (“Fight Club,” “The Social Network”). They talk about their dead of winter visit – as the first Western citizens – to the Russian Naval base on the Kola Peninsula that housed the mothballed K-19. “It was like landing on the moon, with ice fields and an unforgiving landscape,” Bigelow says


Also, during one of the four featurettes (‘Making of,’ ‘Make-up Techniques,’ ‘Breaching the Hull’ and ‘It’s in the Details’) you’ll discover how they transformed an old Soviet sub – adding 100 feet – into K-19. The crazy thing, they found it in St. Petersburg U.S.A., not Russia. An American had originally bought the sub to be made into a historical museum restaurant. They towed the finished boat up the East Coast to Nova Scotia, Canada, where they filmed the subs’ exterior shots.


Production values are excellent from exteriors to interiors, as production designer Karl Júlíusson (“The Hurt Locker,” “Kon-Tiki”) used the original K-19 blueprints, including the equipment layout to recreate the claustrophobic quarters filmed on the studio sets in Canada. The space was so tight on the nine separate sets built on hydraulic gimbals, that the camera crew wore Navy uniforms because it was impossible to keep them out of a shot. And, two Russian technical advisors helped keep Bigelow and the cast on the right course. 



This Paramount/Shout! release was sourced from a 4K scan of the original Super 35 camera negative (2.39:1 aspect ratio), that was photochemically processed with silver retention minus the bleach bath. The theatrical on-screen results showed a desaturated palette and much deeper blacks.


The expanded Dolby Vision and HDR10 grading extracts the intense black levels to the point where, if you didn’t know about Bigelow and Cronenweth’s intended look, you would swear the blacks were crushed. The colors also desaturated, and funky at time during a couple exterior scenes. Film grain is also quite gritty – especially the interiors  while the field of focus is very shallow. Encoded onto a 100 GB disc, the video bitrate varies from 36 Megabits per second to over 90 Mbps, giving the imagery a nice cinematic look. The HDR10 peak brightness hits 798 nits and averages 773 nits, which seems odd since many scenes are on the dark side.


The Blu-ray, also sourced from the new master, has a much sharper image than the old 2K mastered Blu-ray, while the image has a slightly brighter image than the 4K, but with a slight push toward a reddish hue.  



The six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack on the 4K and Blu-ray provides an inclusive experience from the Oscar-nominated Sound Editing, with submarine sound effects (water, metal cracking under deep water pressure, explosions) bounding around the room. Plus, a deep bass response during the test firing of the Soviet missile. The original Blu-ray from 2010 included a 24-bit 5.1 Dolby TrueHD and, with all versions, the dialogue is front and center with a wide soundstage from composer Klaus Badlet’s (“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” “The Recruit”) score, an understudy of Hans Zimmer.


Paramount and its boutique partners continue to delve into its library for potential 4K Ultra HD movies. Several anniversary classics and a Western masterpiece will be released this spring: “High Noon” (April 16), “Mean Girls: 20th Anniversary Edition” (April 30), “Once Upon a Time in the West: 55th Anniversary Edition” (May 14) and “Chinatown: 50th Anniversary” (June 18).

Another true-life nuclear disaster available on 4K is the HBO/Sky mini-series Chernobyl.


Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

K-19 Heads to Sea

(1) Lieutenant Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard) the new reactor officer kisses his fiancé Katya (Natalya Vintilova) goodbye. (2) K-19 leaves its Kola Peninsula base. (3-5) After firing its unarmed missile the crew enjoys ice soccer and makes a group photograph. (6) K-19 plots its course to patrol the Atlantic waters off the East Coast of the U.S.


The Nuclear Meltdown

28 Years Later

“Not until the fall of communism could the survivors of

K-19 mourn their lost comrades and break their silence.”


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