Judge Erick Harper says Flight of the Phoenix reminds us all why remaking classic movies is rarely a good idea.
The only way out is up.
Indulge me whilst I take a trip down memory lane. In the summer of 1986, just after I completed the eighth grade, I took a trip to California with my family. As you all know, one of the mandatory stops on such a family vacation is the vaunted San Diego Zoo. The gorillas made the strongest impression on my younger sister and me, for one of them had, err, regurgitated his most recent meal and was in the process of "reclaiming" it. The meal in question had by this time degenerated into a substance that looked strikingly like guacamole dip. Ever since, a sure fire way to get a laugh or a groan out of either of us has been to mention the gorilla at the San Diego Zoo.
Why do I mention this story? Because it seems that the people who run Hollywood are not so highly evolved as we have been led to believe. Like that legendary gorilla from twenty years ago, the people who run Hollywood are obsessed with eating and regurgitating the same material over and over again until it degrades into unrecognizable goo. Case in point: John Moore's updated version of Flight of the Phoenix.
Flight of the Phoenix is a remake of a well-regarded 1965 film entitled The Flight of the Phoenix. The original starred such luminaries as Jimmy Stewart (Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Sir Richard Attenborough (Elizabeth, The Sand Pebbles, Guns at Batasi), and focused on the fraying nerves and building hostilities among a group of plane crash survivors stuck in the Sahara. Director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) brings a remake that cuts back on all that "drama" business but improves on the original's seriously deficient explosion and gunshot complement.
Facts of the Case
Hotshot corporate pilot Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid, Innerspace, The Alamo, The Rookie) flies around the world, visiting oil rigs in distant parts of the world, usually to shut them down, pack up the gear and crew, and depart the scene. Towns's latest trip takes him to an unproductive test rig in the Gobi Desert to pick up a crew led by prissy British executive-type Ian (Hugh Laurie, Stuart Little, Blackadder the Third) and geologist Kelly Johnson (Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, What Lies Beneath). Needless to say, Towns hardly makes for a welcome visitor. His arrival also provides an opportunity for various characters to spout standard-issue "evil corporation" nonsense, because obviously, closing down a non-productive oil well in the middle of Mongolia is a personal slight against the people working there. After some perfunctory conflict between the hardworking redheaded geologist and the cranky pilot, everyone loads up their junk and climbs aboard the plane. This includes the tough but pretty Kelly, the bumbling and slightly effete Ian, and a collection of the required multi-national and multi-ethnic tokens, as well as several indistinguishable and disposable Generation X (or Y, or whatever) types. At the last minute, a stranger named Elliot (Giovanni Ribisi, Saving Private Ryan, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) appears and hitches a ride as well.
The dangerously overloaded plane encounters severe sandstorms and crashes, hundreds of miles off course and probably across the border in China. The gang looks to be pretty much screwed until the mysterious Elliot pipes up; as it turns out, he is an aircraft engineer and thinks he can build a plane out of the wreckage to carry them all to safety. Towns thinks this idea is insane, but eventually comes around, mostly because it beats sitting around waiting to die of thirst, exposure, or starvation.
As the project progresses, nerves predictably wear thin, clichéd arguments break out, and characters display the full spectrum of petty, petulant, childish human behavior—or what passes for human behavior in Hollywood, anyway. Oh yeah, some stuff gets blowed up real good, we get to see some gunfights, and there is even a chase sequence.
Director John Moore can put together some breathtaking action sequences. The plane crash early in this movie is probably the most impressive I've ever seen on film, beating out even the previous white-knuckled winner, Cast Away. From this beginning to the maddeningly stupid but undeniably thrilling climax, Moore is a competent craftsman, assembling a product that is slick and pretty but ultimately empty.
The one true treat in the film comes in the form of some of the nicest aerial cinematography in some time. The C-119 "Sky Truck" is a somewhat awkward-looking airplane, yet also strangely photogenic and graceful as it flies across miles of barren, reddish sand. The aerial shots reminded me of the ones that open and close The English Patient, and led me to expect a much better film than the one I actually got to see.
The Flight of the Phoenix DVD from Fox has some of the most impressive, ear-splitting sound that I've heard in some time. As filmmaking and DVD technology continues to advance, it takes more and more to impress the film fan's ears. In the commentary track, Moore spends considerable time discussing how his sound team really broke new ground with their efforts. The DVD certainly does their work justice. The DTS track in particular is probably the most impressive I've heard to date, especially during the plane crash sequence that sets up the rest of the film. It is diminished somewhat by the actual sound effects used, which come across as a little too predictable and stereotypical, but other than that it is a delightful audio experience. Delightful, that is, if you like plane crashes and explosions and things like that; of course, if you don't like those things, you probably aren't going to be watching this movie anyway. For those without DTS, or who just want to avoid the extra hearing loss, the Dolby Digital 5.1 option does a commendable job of delivering the audio goods too.
Picture quality on this DVD is acceptable but not as good as might be expected. It is certainly not on a par with the audio quality and not up to the standard of most Fox releases. The image is mostly clear and colors are bright and lifelike, but fine details and background objects lack the clarity and three-dimensionality of the best releases. This would be less of an issue for almost any other movie, but Flight of the Phoenix depends so heavily on its impressive desert cinematography that much of the intended effect is undercut by this weakness in the video presentation. The aerial shots look great, but anything with people or objects in it tends to look a bit like it was shot in front of a big green trash bag. So much for saving costs by shooting in Namibia. Another minor irritation is the worst-placed layer change in the history of DVD.
Despite the critical and box-office drubbing handed this movie upon its release lo, those many months (well, more like ten weeks, to be precise) ago, Fox has created a surprisingly feature-rich DVD. The package trumpets "over 15 minutes of never-before-seen footage" in the form of deleted and extended scenes. Generally speaking, deleted material is deleted from the finished film for good reason, and these are no exception. If you so desire, you can listen to Moore blab over the deleted scenes. if that isn't enough, you can listen to Moore, producers John Davis and Wyck Godfrey, and production designer Patrick Lumb blab over the whole movie, if you like. Their discussion is a lot like the movie itself: It starts out long on technical detail and the intricacies of craftsmanship, and short on the human elements. When they do start telling about the human side of the filmmaking process, their conversation revolves around the regularity of bowel movements on location in Namibia, and we wish they would have stuck to the nuts and bolts stuff…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's exciting to be sure, but this version of Flight of the Phoenix is also dumbed-down and cliché-ridden. Perhaps the biggest compliment and biggest insult one can pay this flick is that it comes as a surprise that Jerry Bruckheimer's name is nowhere to be found; Flight of the Phoenix is precisely the sort of slick, well-crafted, nice-looking but ultimately shallow picture for which Bruckheimer is famous.
The acting is not much better. Miranda Otto saves herself from any real embarrassment just being Miranda Otto, and also because the script gives her less to do. The real performance problems arise for Quaid and Ribisi. Quaid is usually regarded as a decent actor, and has his moments here where he seems like an adequate Harrison Ford knock-off. On the other hand, unlike Ford, he seems never to have learned that less can be more, and that conveying intensity and emotion does not always require shouting and tantrum-throwing. Meanwhile, Ribisi doesn't seem to know what to do with his character. In hair, makeup, and wardrobe he apes Hardy Kruger's engineer from the original film. However, he lacks the detachment and unsentimental worldview that made the original character so fascinating, and that would make the current incarnation work. Well, let me clarify that. Ribisi's character is appropriately cold and callous part of the time, but also sappily emotional and childish part of the time. For the character to work, he really can't have much of a human, non-analytical side, but that key concept is lost on the makers of this new flick. Worse, the seemingly random swings in Elliot's attitude and outlook are not dictated by the circumstances or even the story, but the needs of the script to manufacture some over-the-top conflict from time to time.
Of course, Quaid and Ribisi didn't write the script. One would think that the old writer's maxim, "show, don't tell," would be even more applicable in film than on paper, but it seems to have been missed here. This is a seriously insulting script, one that never misses an opportunity to point out the obvious. This is a script that sticks in lame dialogue to explain to us the origin of the word phoenix, just so we don't think the plane was named after a city in Arizona. (Besides, everyone one knows the city is pronounced "Puh-ho-nix," anyway.) This is a script that assumes that no one in the audience is capable of counting to five. Nothing in the film is allowed to speak for itself; every development has to have a line of dialogue (or a whole screaming tantrum) to underline it for the ticket-buying (or DVD-buying) slugs out in the seats.
Another major problem in the film is its uneven tone. These are people stranded in the desert, struggling with their one long shot chance at survival, and yet much of the film seems inappropriately light-hearted. They have time, for example, to jam out to some upbeat annoying pop song, dancing and clanking out the rhythm on their makeshift scaffolding. This scene also provides the minority members of the cast the opportunity to release their inner minstrel in a way that would be hugely insulting, if it weren't so cheesily pathetic. Major events, such as an outright murder, get a few screen moments of angst and are then quickly forgotten.
The biggest problem with Flight of the Phoenix, and its biggest contrast with its predecessor, is the complete lack of compelling characters or human interactions to hold our interest. The outcome of the film is never really in doubt, having been revealed in the title, so the interpersonal dynamics must carry the day. The problem here is that the screenwriters have no idea how to write such a thing, nor does Moore know how to direct it. Instead, we get long, flat stretches of characterless dialogue, punctuated only by the most trite motivational speeches ever written—Bill Pullman's big moment in Independence Day was both more believable and more stirring than any of these "hopes and dreams" bits. When that doesn't work, we get pro-forma clashes among the characters, bouts of histrionics that border on the surreal in their remove both from the plot of the movie and recognizable human behavior.
As a final insult, Moore refuses to end his film at the end, insisting on including during the end credits clever little snapshots of the surviving characters in their lives upon return to civilization. There has been a total of one (1) film where this device actually worked, and that was American Graffiti. If Moore is the gorilla from the San Diego Zoo, this is the cinematic equivalent of him flinging his poo at those of us in the audience.
In the commentary track, director Moore compares the original The Flight of the Phoenix to a stage play, or to films like Twelve Angry Men or Key Largo, implying that there is something wrong with their focus on interpersonal dynamics. Funny, I thought that was what used to be called good writing. Moore may be on to something here, though. Perhaps the time has come for a remake of Twelve Angry Men, only with more fistfights, and perhaps an explosion or two. Even better would be the inclusion of a musical interlude where Jack Klugman and Henry Fonda bop to a rendition of "Rock Around the Clock" to illustrate the length of time that passes during the jury's deliberations.
Guilty! Flight of the Phoenix is probably the best time I've ever had being totally insulted by a movie. I knew better, but I still found it exciting in places, even though it was infuriatingly stupid in others.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director John Moore, Producers John Davis and Wyck Godfrey, Production Designer Patrick Lumb
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