Can Altitude convince us to take its airborne fantasy horror for real? Mark Lee finds out.
Even the most subtle and modest of horror films ask much of their viewer. Fundamentally, they ask that you leave your preconceptions at the door, and submit your sense of perception, with little further question, to whatever stretched fantasy and imaginative output the filmmakers have constructed. As a reward for our often unquestioning submission, we can sometimes be granted the rich pleasures and emotional reactions which few other filmic genres can so effectively deliver, such as fear, terror, shock, and repulsion. With our sense of belief being tested to the limit, we require counterweights to help us believe, and to lend proceedings some sort of credibility; such balancing elements include convincing special effects, strong performances, assured direction, and an absorbing plot.
With this in mind, there’s a moment somewhere around 40 minutes into Altitude where a leather jacket-clad young man climbs outside of a small plane in the middle of a brutal storm at an unknown height, manoeuvres to the back of the plane, and makes an effort to perform an emergency repair, whilst a close female friend inside leans out into the violent tempest to capture the whole event on film. Yes, I know this all sounds terribly dangerous, but don’t worry; his hapless associates inside the plane have tied a rope around him, and affixed it to a fitting inside, via another friend. This scene encapsulates the central problem of Altitude; no matter how ridiculous the core story underpinning this movie may be, the component parts which combine to present its ultimate delivery are so lacking in credibility that we never submit any part of our consciousness to a notion of temporary belief. There are numerous films with infinitely wilder plot premises, yet such examples are loaded with deliveries which provide the temporary credence required for us to experience the emotions we crave.
There are reasons why Altitude fails, but it’s not because debut feature director Kaare Andrews (also an artist for Marvel comics) is incompetent. After an admittedly shaky start with a cringe-worthy soft-focus flashback, his delivery is acceptable enough, and the movement of the camera – evidenced, for instance, by the swooping shot of the small plane as it accelerates towards take off – shows some level of confidence. Problems begin to emerge as the flimsy plot unfolds. Five ‘friends’, who don’t seem to be particularly fond of or even familiar with each other, are heading off to a Coldplay concert, and they agree to fly with inexperienced young pilot Sara. Naturally, lead Sara is extremely attractive (played by the visually absorbing Jessica Lowndes), yet her association with the uncomfortable Bruce feels unlikely and convenient. As the characters squeeze into the aircraft for the action to take off, their rapid-fire dialogue seems forced and unnatural, and their abrasive relationships result in us garnering nothing in the way of affection for them.
Whilst Jessica Lowndes performs with a level of assured conviction, she finds herself dealing with a weak script and ludicrous plot. The characters behave in ways that we can barely fathom, and this further raises our ire against the finished product. The liberal servings of largely unconvincing CGI further undermine any desire we have to give ourselves away to the unfolding fantasy of the midair terror. And when the most substantial reveal shot finally arrives, after a seemingly lengthy mid-section of the film where the production has lost its way beyond the shakiness of the introductory sections, we are truly disengaged, and disappointed. Yet the most serious crime of the movie arrives shortly afterwards as Sara takes action to battle the circumstances she finds herself in, and with this our patience is completely destroyed.
Thanks to some of the characters’ looks, and the sometimes competent direction, Kaare Andrews’ film does enjoy a certain level of visual appeal. Yet, perhaps in some part because of the $3.6 million budget, the 21 days filming time, or the issues with the original visual effects company, the final output is a genuine disappointment. What can’t be forgiven is the flimsy plot, the unrealistic script, and the cop-out that bridges the climax to the closing scene. There’s no reason why Kaare Andrews and Jessica Lowndes won’t have promising careers in film ahead of them, yet the evidence on display here means that in retrospect, Altitude will perhaps be a film they will both sooner forget.
Anchor Bay release Altitude in a well presented package with distinctively attractive cover artwork, and it is encoded for region B. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1, and during the opening scenes, the result is an impressive display of the movie. The scope of some of these scenes is well reproduced, with the shot of the plane taking off, for example, presenting a great view of the surrounding landscape.
Visually, the early scenes are excellent. Much of the film presents through a cool blue filter, and thanks to some very sharp detail and definition presented in 1080p, the early shots beneath this blue filter look as good as movies of substantially higher budget. Unfortunately, this does not prove to be consistent throughout the movie, with some of the scenes in the central section being subject to excessive graininess and a disappointing lack of definition. The reproduction does improve at some points later on, yet during the lower grade moments the difference is stark enough to be noticeable, and it further dissuades your brain from accepting any of the visuals fed by your visual cortex as being remotely believable.
The transfer benefits from MPEG-4 AVC compression, with a resulting file size of approximately 23Gb, and a total disc size of 30.8Gb.
There are subtitles available in English for deaf and hearing impaired.
Audio arrives in Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1, and is clear and free of noise and distortion throughout. As Andrews mentions during the commentary, the sound has been captured and mixed to especially please owners of audio reproduction systems which make the most of modern movie sound reproduction techniques. The surround sound is absorbing enough, and particularly enjoyable is the depth of the bass. If you own a subwoofer, expect some very satisfying rumbles as the doomed plane approaches the centre of the storm.
If Altitude does manage to cultivate some fans, the extras on this Blu-ray disc aren’t so bad. First up is a Behind the Scenes piece which includes the usual variety of interviews, behind the scenes footage, and insight into the filming of the stunts and effects. Jessica Lowndes effortlessly charms as she equals her on-screen good looks and unnaturally-shaded tan, and the other actors give sufficiently decent accounts of themselves. Kaare Andrews seems like a genuinely good guy, and earns the respect of the cast and crew. Perhaps most impressive of all is when we learn that Ryan Donowho, the guy who clambers out of the plane in the middle of the storm, volunteered to do the stunts himself; impressive stuff. The piece runs for a healthy 49 minutes and two seconds.
The Audio Commentary feels different from many modern commentary pieces in that it only features one commentator. Fortunately, the commentator is Kaare Andrews, so we benefit from a rounded view of the film from someone involved at all phases.
It’s fairly telling that Andrews, whilst projecting a level of enthusiasm overall, sounds virtually apologetic at many times during his solitary discussion, and he installs plenty of disclaimers as he talks, whether this focuses on the budget, the time constraints, or the challenges around the visual effects companies. He also makes it clear that he’s not over-impressed by how some of the scenes finished up, including the first ‘reveal’ shot, and his note that James Cameron made Piranha II: The Spawning before making The Terminator is perhaps the most telling of all.
Andrews is a nice enough guy, and his words are fairly engaging, if not especially lively, so if you can bear to experience Altitude again, you could do worse than to activate his commentary.
Green Storm is a 10 minute six second featurette describing the oodles of green screen shots that enabled the artificially generated effects outside of the stricken light aircraft.
The Original Concept Gallery features sketches by the director, and includes a depiction of an alternate ending for the movie. The interface requires you to scroll through a number of sets of sketches.
Finally, there’s a decent enough Theatrical Trailer, which some may find a preferable way in which to enjoy this movie.
In some ways it could be considered a slick presentation, and the extras on this release are acceptable enough, yet with a ridiculous plot, unconvincing character behaviour, and a resultant lack of tension, there’s not a great deal to recommend this airborne fantasy horror.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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