I know what you’re thinking—The Hunt for Red October isn’t even sci-fi or alternate history, why am I reviewing it? I could make the (weak) argument that it is alternate history, as a 1990 film depicting events in 1984 that did not really take place. I could also say that the movie is science fiction, because its plot hinges on the development of a fictional submarine propulsion system. But what I’ll actually say is that I’m just flat-out going off the rails. There are just too many interesting things to write about that fall outside of my self-imposed restrictions, so I am relaxing those restrictions—and the result is that today you’ll see me gush over a film even more awesome than last week’s1.
First, some background. The Hunt for Red October was originally a 1984 novel by Tom Clancy, and the smash hit that launched him on his way from insurance agent to eventual head of a multimedia technothriller empire. Ronald Reagan himself read and recommended it. How many debut novels are glowingly reviewed by the sitting President of the United States? So Red October was a big deal in the 1980s, brilliantly capturing the spirit of the Cold War’s final, intense decade. I read it, myself, one summer long ago at my grandfather’s house, and was thoroughly entranced by Clancy’s mastery2 of technical details; he didn’t quite invent the technothriller, but he definitely shaped and popularized that subgenre in a profound way.
The premise is elegantly creative. Marko Ramius, the Soviet Navy’s most legendary submarine skipper, has grown dissatisfied with the communist system, and hatched a plot with his officers to sail the new ballistic missile boat Red October to the United States. The Americans, however, are not privy to this information. All they see is the entire Red Fleet scrambling for war, trying to catch a rogue sub which just happens to be equipped with a silent drive and hundreds of nuclear warheads. So the race is on—will the Soviets sink the Red October on its voyage to freedom, or will a plucky CIA analyst, Jack Ryan, prove to the nervous Navy brass that Ramius really intends to defect?
The film adaptation was directed by John McTiernan, of Predator and Die Hard fame, and released in March 1990—months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when the Soviet Communist Party was losing control over its constituent republics and its own government. It was abundantly clear to everyone that communism was on its way out, which cast some doubt on a Cold War movie that was at first meant to be contemporary3. This led to an interesting change during post-production: it became a period piece, with a new opening text crawl specifying that the film took place in November 1984, conveniently just before Gorbachev took power. Thus the producers could justify an all-out military bonanza, featuring hard-edged American servicemen squaring off against communist apparatchiks and their vast war machine.
The adaptation’s plot remains relatively faithful to the book. I’ll avoid summary—you can find plenty of that on Wikipedia—but it delivers multiple intertwined threads, following Ramius, who navigates the Red October across a perilous North Atlantic; Ryan, attempting to prove that Ramius intends defection rather than a nuclear first strike; and the crew of the attack sub USS Dallas, who are the Navy’s eyes and ears beneath the ocean. Smaller threads feature the Soviet ambassador and a Red Navy submarine captain assigned to sink the Red October. For a two-hour film, there’s a lot going on—yet the story’s twists and turns are conveyed with acrobatic grace, expertly balancing exposition with action, quiet scenes with exciting ones, until everything culminates in a breathtaking submarine battle in the Laurentian Abyss.
Naturally for a thriller, a lot of the tension in this film revolves around secrecy. Beyond the task of keeping his submarine hidden, Captain Ramius is in fact undertaking multiple deceptions, especially against his own crew. As far as they know he remains loyal to the Soviet Union and is taking the Red October on a training cruise to Havana. Only Ramius’ officers, a circle of loyal protégés handpicked for this mission, are in on the treasonous secret—and as their voyage becomes progressively more desperate, it becomes harder and harder to conceal what is really going on. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that some of the best scenes take place in the officers’ wardroom and Ramius’ cabin, not just on the command center while torpedoes are zipping around.
Here, actors are the secret ingredient that propels a good script into the territory of greatness, populating the movie with memorable characters and eminently quotable lines. It helps that many of them are Hollywood A-listers. Sean Connery makes for a convincing Captain Ramius, though with his ever-present Scottish accent he doesn’t make for a convincing Russian (well, Lithuanian, technically). Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan5 comes off as very reluctant to leave a cozy CIA office and do dangerous field work, though he definitely grows into the role, steering a full-scale submarine and getting into a gunfight before the movie is out. We also have the ever-entertaining Tim Curry as the Red October‘s doctor, James Earl Jones as Ryan’s CIA superior, plus a cameo appearance from Gates McFadden of Star Trek fame; my favorite supporting character, however, is Ramius’ second-in-command, Vasily Borodin, played with quiet charisma by Sam Neill (the lead man in another great ’90s movie, and an absolute delight in every performance).
The other stars of the show are the submarines, of course. We get to see three of the late Cold War’s most famous subs—on the American side, the stately Los Angeles, and on the Soviet side, the lumbering Typhoon-class ballistic missile boat as well as the sleek, breathtakingly fast Alfa class. Numerous exterior shots show them as vast, dark forms plowing through the ocean murk, like metal whales. Internally, they are cramped and claustrophobic, bedecked with instrumentation on every surface, utterly believable as machines of war—even though the producers had to invent most of the details, nobody having ever seen the inside of a Soviet submarine.
In visual terms alone, The Hunt for Red October is a triumph. This film is blessed with a lavish budget, cooperation from the US Navy6, and a director who knew exactly how to capture the tension and claustrophobia of submarine life, resulting in a veritable feast for the eyes. But it sounds just as great as it looks—the score by composer Basil Poledouris is one of the most memorable things about the movie. The man did countless other legendary soundtracks, from Robocop to Conan the Barbarian to Starship Troopers, and this is still his standout work, incorporating haunting choral pieces that elevate already great scenes to new heights.
But as much as I’ve been praising this movie, I have to admit a handful of weaknesses. Despite stellar production values, there are a couple of technical goofs—a crashing F-14 transmutes into a Korean War-era F-9, which is impressive alchemy if I ever saw it—and aspects of the plot strain credulity—in one scene a fast, noisy submarine shows up out of nowhere when it should have been spotted miles away, while in another, the writers seem to subscribe to the theory that nuclear warheads explode when you hit them7. But those are minor quibbles. You know it’s a good film when you have to wrack your brain for things to complain about.
My largest problem is that it could have done more to engage with its Cold War setting. In particular, Ramius’ exact reasons for defecting are left unclear—it’s hinted that he was trying to prevent a Soviet first strike—and there’s fairly little examination of the Soviet system, which is here conveyed through the tropes most recognizable to Reagan-era Americans: hammers and sickles everywhere, an ossified Party elite, a sycophantic political officer keeping tabs on the military. I wouldn’t necessarily have expected anything deeper from a 1990s Hollywood blockbuster, but it still strikes me as a missed opportunity to look thoughtfully across the Iron Curtain.
So—this is the part of the review where I try to sum up my thoughts. Never any easy task, but I’ll take a crack at it.
Do I think the film surpassed the book? I’m sure of it. Clancy’s work doesn’t exude excellence from every pore, the same way its adaptation does—decent prose can’t compete with great actors and a legendary soundtrack. I would put The Hunt for Red October alongside The Godfather and (controversially) Starship Troopers, two other works that turned iffy source material into a spectacle on the big screen. Not coincidentally, Red October, The Godfather, and Starship Troopers are high on my nebulous list of favorite movies, alongside a few others you may have seen on this blog.
For anyone who wants a good submarine movie, a good technothriller, or even just a good adventure, The Hunt for Red October is an excellent choice. It’s immersive from start to finish; if you happen to be watching for the first time, you should expect a captivating, unpredictable roller coaster of a plot, too. The whole thing is perfectly cast, brilliantly produced, highly recommended—and now that I’ve depleted my stock of superlatives, I will simply leave you with my final score:
- My Star Trek VI review, besides just mentioning The Hunt for Red October, actually inspired me to go ahead and write today’s post.
- Tom Clancy was a decent writer, well-suited to the technothriller genre even if he didn’t have any particular talents with regard to characterization and subtlety. However, the “Tom Clancy” brand is no symbol of quality.
- Here’s an archived Entertainment Weekly article, from shortly before the film’s release: https://ew.com/article/1990/03/02/how-will-hunt-red-october-fare/.
- The movie portrays the magnetohydrodynamic drive—an underwater jet engine, of sorts, which really exists—as an unstoppable stealth technology that can hide the Red October from passive sonar detection. In reality it would still be quite noisy. Submarines generate a lot of noise from their propellers, which the jet drive would eliminate, but nuclear reactor pumps are even louder. The stealthiest subs are actually “primitive” diesel craft operating on battery power.
- Jack Ryan has been portrayed by many actors, most recently Chris Pine and John Krasinski, but Baldwin’s version was my favorite.
- We see plenty of Navy ships, helicopters, and extras—including the USS Blueback, which I had the privilege of touring at OMSI as a child. The military has a long tradition of backing military-themed movies, and Red October was no exception.
- In reality, blowing up a warhead will just scatter pieces of warhead everywhere. It takes a very specific set of conditions to set off a chain fission reaction, and if you damage the detonation mechanism, you will almost certainly prevent that from happening.