The 1965 version of Flight of the Phoenix is not a great movie, but it has a lot more going for it than the second-rate 2004 re-imagination. Despite using the same premise and numerous identical plot points, this remake replaces suspense with boredom and witty dialogue with lame lines any self-respecting actor should be embarrassed to utter. The only thing better about the 2004 Flight of the Phoenix are the special effects, and there are times when the computer-generated imagery isn't convincing.
Comparisons between the two editions may be unfair, but they are inevitable. The first place to start is the acting. 1965's Flight of the Phoenix featured four Oscar-winning actors (James Stewart, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Peter Finch). The new version is headlined by Dennis Quaid, who is joined by Hugh Laurie, Giovanni Ribisi, and Miranda Otto. Among them, they have one Golden Globe nomination. I think all of them (except possibly Laurie) have attended the Oscars, but as members of the audience. While awards do not always define the performers, there's a gap between the 1965 cast and the 2004 troupe. It's possible to lay some of the blame at the feet of screenwriters Scott Frank (Dead Again) and Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen). Few actors can impress when delivering a line like We're not garbage - we're people!
Quaid plays Frank Towns, a gritty pilot who has been tabbed by a big oil company to bring their employees home after an operation in Mongolia is a bust. Among Frank's human cargo are the drill site's chief operator (Otto), a suit who's visiting (Laurie), the mysterious and insecure Elliot (Ribisi), and a group of grunts, each of whom has one discernible personality trait. On the way back to civilization, Frank's plane runs into a monstrous sandstorm. Pieces of the aircraft begin coming off, including the radio antenna (not good) and a propeller (even worse). The crash landing in the Gobi Desert takes two lives, but leaves the survivors with a dilemma. Unless they are spotted from above (highly unlikely), they have only enough food and water for one month. At that point, Elliot makes a startling pronouncement. He is an engineer who designs planes, and he believes that it is possible to build a new plane out of the wreckage of the old one.
I'm not going to complain about the improbability of the film's premise. If you're going to see the movie, you have to buy into it, or what's the point? Flight of the Phoenix's failure is the result of poor execution. I was never frightened for these people, and I never believed their venture might fail. I expected one or two of them to die along the way, but it was obvious that Flight of the Phoenix was headed for an upbeat ending. Without suspense, all we're left with is a bunch of half-developed characters reciting laughable dialogue.
When faced with an ensemble cast, it's difficult to develop all of the characters effectively. One or more is likely to be shortchanged, unless the director and writers are extremely talented (for an example of what John Moore should have used as a template, watch Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot). In this case, however, no one - not even Frank Towns - gains a shadow of multidimensionality. These are plastic people - walking stereotypes who interact using clichés. There are numerous times when Flight of the Phoenix doesn't make sense, and it's because the characters are flimsy. For example, Frank is set against building a new plane until he hears a speech about hopes and dreams; then he decides it's worth the risk. This moment was taken straight out of Plot Contrivances 101.
For the most part, people in this movie act the way they do because the script demands such behavior. There are instances in which the characters exhibit the kind of extreme stupidity normally reserved for horror movie victims. And there's one scene in which Elliot is cast in a negative light because he makes a decision that is as unpopular as it is necessary. The guy is almost always right, yet the film insists on portraying him as a bottom-feeder. And Giovanni Ribisi's campy performance doesn't help. Elliot should be generating sympathy, not causing suppressed giggles.
Mention has been made of Flight of the Phoenix's amazing photography, and I suppose it's all very pretty. But it is in the service of a movie that isn't worth the time or effort attending. Flight of the Phoenix boasts only two worthwhile moments: the crash-landing (which is handled nicely) and the take-off. Beyond that, if you're looking for awe-inspiring shots of dunes, Lawrence of Arabia is your best bet. And if you're in search of a version of the story that won't have you squirming with impatience in your seat, rent the original. This is one bird that should have stayed grounded. [Berardinelli's rating: * 1/2 out of 4]
Labels: action, adventure, drama, flying, thriller
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