Air Crew Review

When Air Crew hit my doormat as part of my ongoing Ruscico subscription, I assumed from the title and the Soviet cinema's overwhelming fondness for World War II dramas it was yet another film along the lines of Torpedo Bombers or Ballad of a Soldier - so you can imagine my delight when it actually turned out to be the Soviet answer to the Airport cycle: an all-stops-out disaster movie that's often just as entertaining as its Western counterparts, and more than makes up for the sad (if understandable) absence of George Kennedy by including some genuinely fascinating social and cultural background detail.

Air Crew (the original Russian title transliterates as "Equipage"; it's also been called The Crew and Flight Crew) was the first Soviet disaster movie - and, as far as I can make out, the only one. Despite attracting somewhat sniffy reviews from critics who thought the Soviet film industry should be altogether more high-minded than to borrow so shamelessly from Hollywood, it was a huge box-office hit.

Perhaps taking a cue from Wages of Fear, the film takes its time to get going - we barely see a plane for the first hour, with virtually all the action firmly on dry land as we get an all too detailed look at the private lives of the three pilots upon whose actions everyone's lives will depend later on. Needless to say, as it's that kind of film, they all have various domestic and personal traumas to occupy themselves with.

The oldest and most experienced, Andrei (Georgi Zhzhyonov) is horrified when he hears that his daughter is not only pregnant but refuses to marry the father; Valentin (Anatoly Vasiliev) is in the throes of a painful divorce, made worse by the fact that he's still very close to his son; while Igor (Leonid Filatov) prefers to stay single, luring young air hostesses back to what I imagine is the 1980 Soviet equivalent of a space-age bachelor pad, complete with flashing coloured disco lights and aquarium.

While none of these details are remotely unusual in the context of Western film-making, they can't help but be strangely compelling here - I'd been under the erroneous impression that illicit pregnancy was a taboo subject until Vassily Pitchul's Little Vera scandalised Soviet audiences nearly a decade later, and the décor of Igor's apartment defies description: it's impossible to tell if it's deliberately hideous or was intended as the ultimate in audience wish-fulfilment.

If this first section is seriously overlong, even when taking into account the additional pleasures an interested Western viewer may gain from the glimpses of day-to-day Soviet life in the late 1970s, not to mention a surprisingly explicit sex scene (I really wasn't expecting topless female nudity in a Brezhnev-era film!), you can rest assured that things pick up very noticeably at around the 70-minute mark, when our intrepid crew flies a routine trip to the remote mountain town of Bidri.

Unfortunately, no sooner have they landed than Bidri airport is hit by an earthquake -which in turn triggers off flash floods, fires, collapsing electricity cables and even a flow of molten lava in what looks like a simultaneous tribute to every 1970s American disaster movie you care to mention. Even better, when the plane finally manages to become airborne, the crew are horrified to discover that it didn't quite leave Bidri in one piece - and not only is their plane cracking up but they can't find an airport that isn't closed due to heavy thunderstorms.

The special effects aren't brilliant by today's CGI standards, but they're certainly comparable with anything being made in Hollywood before Industrial Light & Magic shifted the goalposts in the late 1970s - some of the miniatures are a little crude and obvious, but they don't require a huge suspension of disbelief to be effective. And director Alexander Mitta does a great job of building up and pacing the suspense, even if the climax (which I won't spoil) is ever so slightly on the wrong side of plausibility.

Where Mitta is less successful, though, is in knitting the two halves of the film together in such a way that the second half justifies the lengthy build-up of the first. While I can easily appreciate that he was trying to create rather more complex and rounded characters than you usually see in disaster movies (and in this respect Air Crew is way ahead of Airport and its ilk), this counts for virtually nothing when they're in the plane - none of the manifest character flaws we see on the ground are really exploited to the extent that they were in, say, Wages of Fear (where the tension is upped considerably by the fact that the men on their suicidal mission clearly loathe each other), and the passengers are the usual archetypes and stereotypes that we never really get a chance to know properly. As a result, unless you're particularly keen on Soviet domestic dramas, there's little reason not to start watching until the halfway mark has already passed.

I don't want to be too churlish, though, as the film is rarely less than hugely enjoyable, not to mention fascinating from a cross-cultural standpoint, as it's the kind of film that for the most part simply wasn't released in the West, where Russian cinema is usually represented by the highbrow likes of Tarkovsky and Paradjanov. True, they have considerable virtues of their own, but neither of them ever staged a scene of an aircraft taking off from a runway that's rapidly being overrun by molten lava. And neither did they ever work with Alfred Schnittke, generally recognised as the most important Soviet composer after Prokofiev and Shostakovich, whose nervous, edgy score is one of the film's many genuine pleasures.

Visually, there's little to fault on this DVD. The print is in outstanding condition for a 22-year-old film - damage is kept to an absolute minimum, and although you notice the occasional spots and scratches, they're never remotely obtrusive except on some of the aerial shots, which I imagine were sourced from stock footage. What impressed me even more was how vivid the colours were, and how true they rang - Soviet colour processes are notoriously poor and prone to fading and inconsistency from shot to shot, but I couldn't detect any such problems here.

The picture is very sharp and pretty much grain-free, and while the fact that it's in non-anamorphic 4:3 initially seems a little jarring, that's purely because most Western disaster movies tend to be in widescreen - but the Soviet Union carried on shooting feature films in 4:3 for many decades after that ratio ceased to be used for cinema films in the west. There were no significant transfer issues - all in all, this is one of the best Ruscico efforts I've seen to date.

This is the first Ruscico disc I've reviewed since I had the extremely dubious pleasure of comparing one of their 5.1 remixes directly with the original mono track on Stalker, and those who read my comments in that review will understand why I've become rather more suspicious of the bona fides of Ruscico's mixes since then - I was shocked by how many changes were made, which went well beyond merely adding directional effects and a sense of three-dimensional space!

Here, as with virtually all the other discs, you only have the option of a 5.1 remix from a mono original, so you have to take it on trust that it does the film justice. Air Crew is hardly Tarkovsky, so there's probably less need for purism - and on the whole the remix worked pretty well to my ears: as with most Ruscico remixes, most of the time it's effectively still mono, with the surround speakers occasionally being called in to beef up the atmosphere, especially in crowded airports, and of course there are plenty of directional plane and helicopter effects where one would expect them.

But at the 70-minute mark the stops start getting pulled out, as the earthquake hits Bidri airport, and constant heavy subwoofer rumblings are accompanied by shattering glass, explosions, falling masonry, electrical fires and general panic echoing around the room. To be honest, with a scene like this I'm really not bothered whether it's true to the spirit of the original film - my only real quibble is that Schnittke's music is somewhat muted compared with the raging sound-effects torrent, and I have a suspicion it was rather more upfront in the original. But under the circumstances I wasn't especially bothered!

The sound quality is perfectly adequate - if it lacks the dynamic and tonal range of a contemporary release, it's certainly nothing to complain about, and there were no noticeable dropouts or audio glitches that I could hear.

I did have a couple of quibbles, though - on a couple of occasions I felt that Igor's doorbell had been assigned the wrong speaker: it didn't seem to make directional sense based on where I felt the door should be (though when the door was actually visible the placement was accurate).

Incidentally, although my first viewing was with the original Russian soundtrack, I dipped into the English dub track out of curiosity and ended up rewatching quite a few scenes. On the one hand, it's laughably awful, but it actually fits the tone of the film surprisingly well: the copious Americanisms making its genre debt all too clear!

The disc comes with the usual tonnage of subtitles (no fewer than thirteen language options), and Tatiana Kameneva's English translation is, as usual, impressively idiomatic and readable - I can't vouch for the accuracy of the translation, but it certainly rang true. And I'm not about to complain about a more than adequate 32 chapter stops.

Possibly as a side-effect of the length of the film and its multiple 5.1 soundtracks (unlike many Ruscico two-parters, everything's been crammed onto one disc), extras are a bit on the skimpy side. There are of course the basics: a thumbnail-selectable stills gallery containing ten film stills and eight behind-the-scenes ones, together with the poster, plus filmographies for director Alexander Mitta, writers Yuli Dunsky and Valery Frid, cameraman Valery Shuvalov, composer Alfred Schnittke and actors Georgy Zhzhenov, Irina Akulova, Alexander Pavlov, Anatoly Vassiliev, Alexandra Yakovleva, Leonid Filatov, Yekaterina Vassilieva and Yuri Gorobets. Sadly, there are none of the hidden trailers or other extras that have graced other Ruscico discs, though a separate section offers trailers for Agony, Tchaikovsky and The Forty-First.

The only other extra is an eight-minute extract from Schnittke's Fourth Symphony - annoyingly (though unsurprisingly for this label), there's no further contextual information: we're not even told what movement it is, and as we're plunged somewhat unceremoniously into the middle it takes some time to get one's bearings. On the basis of what's offered, it sounds very typical Schnittke: dissonant, neurotic, constantly threatening to erupt into inexplicable violence. I have a feeling Ruscico have joined several brief excerpts together, as there are quite a few sudden cuts that don't sound as though they're part of the musical argument, and it's frustrating trying to listen to it without really knowing what the situation is.

So it's a reasonable film on a reasonable DVD - although this would be far from my first choice for those wanting to investigate Russian genre films (I much preferred Viy and Amphibian Man overall), it's certainly worth a look for the curious - and if the extras are a little disappointing by Ruscico standards, the presentation of the main feature is one of their better efforts to date.

One thing the disc doesn't answer, though, is whether Aeroflot management approved the script in advance - subsequent revelations about their reliability have given scenes of an Aeroflot plane visibly starting to break up in mid-flight an all too horrible real-world resonance!

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