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Refried Phoenix

This week my trip to the movies was a somewhat lonely one. Seeing the early seasons a film that I’m going to review is my way of ensuring that there are as few people in the cinema as possible, but with all the big budget block busters that have been on the marquees over the last month or so most of the early sessions have been reasonably well populated.

Well, not this time. This week it was just me and three other losers forcing the projectionist to actually run the film through the machine… Perfect! So, the environment was right… what about the movie?

Flight of the Phoenix is a film that I’ve had a strong affection for since I was quite young, maybe eight or nine years old. Obviously, I’m talking about the original, 1965 version, which boasted a stella cast featuring James Stewart, Peter Finch, Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine and Hardy Kruger. The 1965 version of Flight of the Phoenix told the story of how a group of men took it upon themselves to facilitate their own rescue after the plane they were traveling in crashes in the Sahara.
Under the guidance of the arrogant Heinrich Dorfman (Kruger) the survivors set about constructing a new plane from the wreckage of the old one.

With some minor, and some major changes, this remake tells essentially the same story. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Dennis Quaid as the pilot (The role previously played by James Stewart) and a couple of the supporting cast, Flight of the Phoenix falls somewhat short of the original.

Directed by John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) the film splutters along in fits and starts. Where it at first appears to be using glib, staccato, sequences to introduce character relationships in a hurried fashion to, one hopes, get right into the action. You soon discover that, even once the action has begun (and as rapidly ended) this choppy style continues throughout the film. While the effects are sensational: The plane crash sequence had me running for the inflatable escape slide, and the visual style makes perfect use of the harsh lighting and strong red/orange hues of the Mongolian desert, ultimately the film feels rushed, the characters either cliché or entirely unnecessary and the script under developed.

It really is a credit to the cast of Flight of the Phoenix that the film is as enjoyable as it actually turns out to be. Dennis Quaid mows down the more appalling parts of his dialogue with his unfailing ‘coolest guy on the planet’ routine. Despite being completely under used, Hugh Laurie manages to work some charm into the stereotypical elitist stuffed shirt harness that he’s inflicted with. And the rest of the cast, made up of the members of a predictably multicultural oil rig crew (Featuring Tony Curran, Jacob Vargas, Scott Michael Campbell, Kevork Malikyan and Sticky Fingaz) eventually manage to portray the lovable rag-tag group of misfits that the script so desperately wants you to believe that they are.

Miranda Otto however, appeared to have the same trouble with her role as I did: Neither of us, it seemed, could fathom as to why it was she was actually there! Her performance was ‘phoned in’ at best, which is all anyone could really ask of her given that her character was completely underdeveloped and hollow. As a perfect example of how little thought is put into her character when the credits roll we are treated to a series photographs depicting where the survivors have ended up. Maranda Otto’s character, Kelly, is presented as being cheerfully back, pretty much, where she started.

Possibly the most disappointing element of this film is the handling of the character Elliott (Played by Giovanni Ribisi), who is the equivalent to the character Kruger played in the 1965 version. Elliott sees himself as being ‘worth’ more than any of the other characters but realizes that they are his only chance for survival. When he proposes that they use the remaining pieces of the plane to construct a new vehicle to carry them to civilization, one can assume that his arrogance is part of the reason that some of the others are willing to undertake such a huge task in such an unforgiving environment. Ribisi appears to have confused the character for an android who’s batteries are slightly rundown. Instead of self confident arrogance, his lines are delivered in a stilted monotone fashion. Even his movements are ridged and robotic: Several times when he’s standing in the desert you half expect him to start trying to flag down a passing Sand Crawler. While you do end up hating the Elliott character you do so, not because he’s manipulative, selfish and deceptive… but because he’s just so damn two dimensional and boring!

The saving grace of Flight of the Phoenix is that it’s a damn cool idea. And, albeit flawed from the scripting/editing side of things, the majority of the cast work double time with the little that they have to go on. As a result they manage to turn what looks like a series of 60 second television commercials for sand and cigarets into a pretty entertaining movie.

If you’ve seen some of the other darker, grimmer films showing at the moment and are looking for something with a bit of adventure that’s not quite as heavy going as the others then by all means check out Flight of the Phoenix. If not grab it when it’s released on DVD – Or better yet, dig up a copy of the original.

[Originally written for EON and published at Gamespace on Fri, 22 Jul 2005]

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1 Comment

    I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. A really enjoyable film.