“If you believe in God,” the co-pilot tells the terrified passengers, “now’s the time to call in the favor!”
Indeed, it will take a galactic boon to save this crew, because the opening sequence of Flight of the Phoenix is the most gut-grabbing airplane crash you’ve ever seen on film.
From the very beginning of the movie, you know that macho arrogance is going to get its comeuppance. “You screw up, you pay the price,” Capt. Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid, The Day After Tomorrow) snarls at Kelly (Miranda Otto, In My Father’s Den). She’s the female leader of a crew drilling for oil in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and Amocore, the parent company, won’t give Kelly any more time to prove herself. Blame seems to be part of Amocore’s corporate culture, since the visiting executive (Hugh Laurie, TV’s House) thrives on it for the entire movie.
Kelly and her crew rush to pack themselves and their equipment into Towns’ silver C-119 cargo plane. Joining the oil roughnecks is a weird, effete stranger, Elliot (Giovanni Ribisi, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).
When the sandstorm from hell arises, Elliot warns Towns that the plane is too heavy, but Towns disregards caution and refuses to head back. This wrong decision kills some of the passengers and dooms the rest, as one death-dealing disaster after another befalls them.
The downed plane is 200 miles off course, with no radio. There’s little water and food. It’s impossible to walk for help because the mountains are so magnetic that compasses don’t work. And sandstorms threaten to literally scour the skin off any unprotected hiker.
But surely, someone will notice they’re missing and come to rescue them. Won’t they?
Eventually the grimy dreamers face the ugly truth: No one is coming. The accountants at headquarters will have run a cost-benefit assessment and decided that it’s too expensive to mount a search effort for people who are probably already dead. To Amocore, the survivors are like the useless garbage left behind at the company’s far-flung oil rigs.
As it always does in scenarios like these, human nature emerges to make a bad situation worse. Tensions among the survivors soar as high as the scorching temperature. Fights break out, madness looms, and murder seems attractive for the mere sake of relieving the stress. Even so, one step at a time, the disparate crew members learn to work together, and the virtue of teamwork rises to serve as redeemer.
Elliot offers a faint glimmer of hope. He’s an airplane designer, he tells the crew, and he will show them how to rebuild the plane and make it fly. It’s an impossible task, but isn’t that better than just waiting around to die?
While the hapless humans rebuild the plane, the desert gods relentlessly send more horrifying natural phenomena their way. As if that’s not bad enough, nasty nomads on magnificent horses appear on top of the sand dunes. Well, they’re not exactly nomads — they’re arms smugglers who are no friends to desperate Americans.
Will the plane really fly? Will Towns and Elliot kill one another? Will Kelly ever do anything really macho?
Those questions sure kept me glued to my seat. What’s more, Phoenix‘s action sequences, special effects and cinematography (especially the aerial footage) are fantastic. (Director John Moore and cinematographer Bruce Galvin teamed up before on Moore’s first big film, Behind Enemy Lines.) Alas, throughout the movie, you’re craving visceral emotional responses to match the visual thrills; in the human drama department, the movie stays mired on the tarmac.
Is this remake better than the 1965 original, which starred Jimmy Stewart and Hardy Krueger? At the theater, I was fortunate to discuss movies, airplanes, Chuck Yeager, submarines, war and a whole lot of other things with a retired Navy captain who had just seen the movie. The 86-year-old had served in the second battalion to go to the Pacific in World War II, “the one in which the war’s first Navy officers were lost,” he told me.
“This Flight of the Phoenix is a very good movie, if you hadn’t seen the first one,” he said. “The original had more suspense.”
I wrote down the charming man’s name, but he asked me not to mention it. Real heroes are like that. Rated PG-13 for some language, action and violence.
— reviewed by Marci Miller