Flight Of The Phoenix Review
It’s fascinating how isolation and the deprivation of the very things people hold sacred can affect human psyche. The studies have shown people beginning to hallucinate after a few days, the movies have shown us in desperation we’ll turn to the very thing we all know – animalistic preservation, and we’ll start eating our buddies like in Frank Marshall’s Alive. Like one of the characters in Flight Of The Phoenix tells us: there’s only one thing a man needs – someone to love. If he can’t get that, he needs something to hope for, and if he can’t get that, he just needs something to do. This is psychology 101 for the MTV generation as someone clearly must have been reading their high school notes while watching pop videos. Does man really need ‘love’ to survive? Some of MTV’s general output would have us believe that so, while ‘something to hope for’ and keeping one’s mind busy is straight out of the Psychologist’s Friendly Handbook. However, what the facts tell us about human beings is that we are natural survivalists, it’s just down to the viewer how much you take from the movies and perhaps we’re over-estimating ourselves. Could Tom Hanks really become a genius boy scout and survive for all that time in Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, and could our intrepid but unfortunate heroes in Flight Of The Phoenix really make an airplane out of a crashed one, flying out of the desert laughing and smiling after days of starvation? If nothing else, it makes us feel good…right?
Director John Moore brings us the remake of Robert Aldrich’s The Flight Of The Phoenix much like his earlier film Behind Enemy Lines - it’s loud, slick, and reads like an eight year old’s school textbook. It has plentiful fast edits, new music, and the usual racial stereotypes to position itself proudly next to any other modern day Hollywood blockbuster, and rather than position its audience inside the grief and frightened predicament its characters find themselves, it has us marvelling at their jokes, dancing skills and plane building ingenuity. Moore’s film is far happier taking us on a ride of diluted human courage, almost as if the plane crash never happened and these characters had just been given the task of building a plane from scrap parts.
The film tells the story of oil workers leaving their station in the desert, flying home aboard Captain Frank Towns’ (Dennis Quaid) plane. In an attempt to fly through a sandstorm, the plane crashes and the remaining survivors are left with little food and water, stranded in the Mongolian desert. One strange outcast, Elliot (Giovanni Ribisi), comes forward with a plan to build another plane out of the wreckage. Fighting the unpredictable weather, the desert surroundings, smugglers and themselves, the group band together to try and build their only escape.
To say the least, Flight Of The Phoenix is a pleasant surprise in that for all its flaws it is an entertaining and enjoyable watch. The plane crash itself is superbly photographed delivering a very realistic feel to an aircraft losing altitude, and ultimately heading for the deck. Moore’s style is that he always seems to want the audience’s attention, whether it be with jump-cuts, a piece of comedic throwaway dialogue, or random conflict. It works to an extent, never allowing the film to get languid and keeping the pace moving along, but there’s always the feeling that he’s doing too much and trying too hard. It’s perfectly fine having the characters deal with an electrical storm for example - it’s loud, it’s action-packed, it allows them to show-off a little more of that courage they seem to have in abundance, but it takes away moments of characters interacting and dealing with the situation behind the spotlight. Perhaps a quiet moment of recollection for the dead would have sufficed, instead of another show for the machismo.
It is Scott Frank’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Edward Burns, that bares the brunt of Moore’s directorial excesses as the roots of the characters are glossed over. The times the characters have a chance to really interact and come to terms on a human level to their predicament are lost in the director’s push for another piece of trashy, full-blown action. Unlike the better film Alive we really never get to know who these people are behind the stereotypes, which means any form of real emotion is non-existent. When some form of individuality is attempted to be given to the characters in between the action-orientated moments, it either stings the senses with tiresome cliché or physically hurts with the scene where they all start singing and dancing to ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast. Why this scene is even in the movie defies belief, whether or not it can be legitimately argued that it acts as a bit of relief and entertainment in between the problems these people have gone through, it just feels odd and out of place. Your friends have died, and you don’t know whether or not you’ll survive, let alone see your loved ones again – would you be having a party?
Yet Moore’s film works for it is, and it tries to be nothing more than a piece of escapism. There are moments of true, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and the desert is photographed terrifically, giving it a spacious, ominous beauty. Giovanni Ribisi is superb in the role of Elliot, giving a restrained performance as the weird, eccentric aircraft designer. The twist involving his character is one of the film’s more endearing qualities, it’s just a shame that the other actors couldn’t live up to his performance. If anything, Flight Of The Phoenix is a little hope for those with short attention spans, and a happy ending is never a bad thing.
The picture is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphic enhanced. ‘Impressive’ is the word that best explains the rich colours and harsh beauty of the desert photography, superbly reproduced on this DVD. The darker scenes look especially clear and the burning fires and powerful spotlights the characters use to light their surroundings cut into the black of night with crisp clarity. The disc handles the fast-paced plane crash nicely with the intricate details such as bits of the plane breaking away and the sandstorm smashing into the aircraft, all present and correct. The print is in perfect condition with the on-location exterior photography looking fabulous. If there are any problems with the image quality it would be a lack of sharpness probably due to the exterior lighting (the harsh desert sun) offering a warm glow that has a hazy feel, but detail is good regardless and this is hardly a notable distraction.
Two audio tracks are present on the disc – a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS. I first viewed the film with the DTS track and like the image quality I was very impressed. The track is easily one of the best I’ve heard, with superb use of the surround speakers and the separation is first-rate. The first time it really kicks in is when the sandstorm begins to down the plane. Wind smashes debris all around the speakers with the sub-woofer working superbly well to create a low-end recurring thump that brilliantly provides the feeling that the engines are failing. A lot of care and attention has been given to the sound, and in this scene particularly it is fantastic – the plane flying overhead is brilliantly handled as it flies from the front to the back of the soundstage, and the engine breaking and coming apart thunders from the front, smashes off its hinges to the right then crashes into the plane in the centre of the soundstage. Dialogue is crystal clear throughout, the storms of the desert scatter and spit throughout the speakers, and the sub-woofer is superbly utilised. I preferred the DTS track over the Dolby Digital 5.1 as the separation appeared much cleaner, and the sub-woofer saw more action. The Dolby Digital track is encoded at 448kbps while the DTS track is encoded at 754kbps.
The Phoenix Diaries: Making Of Documentary - This 40 minute making-of is an excellent addition to the disc, and is one of those additional features that really adds something worthwhile to the DVD package as a whole. It’s well-edited and put together and has a real behind-the-scenes feel (warts and all) rather than promotional, talking heads crap. There is a lot crammed in here from director John Moore’s frequent outbursts and dry, almost vindictive, sarcastic humour, to seeing the actors get more and more bored with the constant attention of the promotional media surrounding the film. We get to spend time with many of the production staff and the great thing about the documentary is it doesn’t glamorise the making of a movie like so many do. It appears to strive for a much more grounded, down-to-earth approach, investigating the essence of what people go through making a film and not being just another marketing ploy. It’s very interesting viewing, informative and quite funny at times.
Feature Length Commentary with director John Moore, producers John Davis and Wyck Godfrey, and production designer Patrick Lumb - This is a good commentary which concentrates on the technical side of making the film with some interesting anecdotes from the set. The trials and tribulations of desert shooting are an intricate part of the commentary and those seeking a discussion of the finer details of the production will be well-served here.
Deleted and Extended Scenes - These scenes are offered with excellent quality audio and vision, and commentary from director John Moore is an option for some scenes.
Flight Of The Phoenix is a MTV-generation remake and works as such. Despite its flaws, it’s a piece of Hollywood fluff that entertains and pushes just enough of the right buttons to merit a viewing. The DVD is excellent with superb picture and audio quality, a documentary that is definitely worth seeing and a commentary that offers insight into the technical side of the production. Average film, excellent DVD.
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