John Moore’s remake of the 1965 desert adventure Flight of the Phoenix with Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough mirrors the plot of the original point for point, sometimes line for line. All that’s missing is little things like subtlety, nuance, characterization, and human interest.
The original film traded on Jimmy Stewart’s all-American image, casting him as a cocksure but not unsympathetic pilot humbled after a crash in the desert by the realization of his own limitations and dependence on others, most vexingly an introverted German engineer (Hardy Kruger).
This provocative comeuppance for can-do American spirit is thrown to the winds in the remake, which from the outset establishes pilot Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and his co-pilot A.J. (Tyrese Gibson in the Attenborough role) as bullying, swaggering creeps with no redeeming traits who exist in order to be taught a lesson. They’re gratuitously abusive to the ragtag team of abruptly unemployed oil-riggers they’ve come to evacuate. Their arrogant repartee in the opening minutes is so full of leering sexist humor (Frank’s the sort of guy who can’t even buckle his seat belt without making a lewd remark about it) that by the time A.J. observes of the massive sandstorm into which they’re flying, "That’s a big one, Frank," we can tell it must be serious, since Frank makes no crass response.
Meanwhile, Frank and A.J.’s loutish behavior is heavy-handedly contrasted with the earthy humanity and camaraderie of the oil-riggers, whom we see in early scenes engaging in good-natured banter and sharing photos of family and loved ones. The consistent lack of subtlety hits a new low during the lengthy crash sequence: We’ve seen crash sequences before in which part of the fuselage is torn open in midflight and a passenger is sucked out of the plane, but here the film cuts away from the freefalling plane to follow the body falling, falling to the ground, providing one of the more suspenseful moments as we wonder whether they’re actually going to show the moment of impact. (Wham. Guess so.)
At least the camera doesn’t actually ride the body to the ground like the torpedo in Pearl Harbor, which means there’s still room for things to go downhill in some other movie. On the other hand, long after you think the movie has forgotten that particular corpse, Frank makes a long trek out into the desert and finds it again, and we get an extreme closeup on the decomposing and, it turns out, shot-up body. Then there’s the guy who gets stranded out in a sandstorm at night. Nobody finds that one, but the camera returns to it anyway the following morning, so we can see its head and shoulders protruding upright from the sand.
Giovanni Ribisi (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) plays the key role of the oddball engineer, here named Elliot. In the original, residual post-WWII nationalistic tensions went into the German character’s strained behavior and friction with Stewart’s pilot, but here he’s just an oddball for no particular reason. (Maybe he could have been reinvented as an Iraqi? Better yet, a Frenchman.)
Worse, the film underscores the glaring fact that Elliot has absolutely no reason to be out in the middle of the desert getting on this airplane. I think Kelly (Miranda Otto, The Return of the King) says that his presence is "a long story," but later she says he just "showed up" at some point. In the middle of the desert. Right. For at least half of the film Ribisi plays Elliot as a complete enigma; he could be playing an angel from heaven. Later on he gets more complicated, but not more interesting.
The dialogue ranges from passable to laughable. "Look. We are in the middle of a desert," one character sums up helpfully about halfway through the picture, for those with short attention spans. Another character, touching on the unlikelihood of being rescued, comments, "It’s a big desert, isn’t it?" Worse are the inspirational speeches. Here’s my favorite, delivered by Frank: "We’re not garbage. We’re people… with families and lives to live — all of us." This is, of course, a big step forward for Frank, who began regarding his passengers as precisely "garbage." The original film was about people with nothing in common working toward a common goal; this remake is sensitivity training for arrogant jerks.
So sloppy is the screenplay that after delivering a clichéd "hopes and dreams speech" via one character trying to motivate Frank, it proceeds (unless I’m missing something) to forget who delivered the speech in the first place, and has Frank make at least two remarks to Kelly implying that she’s the one responsible for the "hopes and dreams speech" (yes, he really calls it that, twice), though in fact neither she wasn’t even there and can have no idea what he’s talking about.
Besides all this, there’s an undercurrent of uncomfortably agnostic spirituality running through the film. When some of the passengers die in the initial crash, the survivors bury them and (as in the original) erect crosses over their graves. But then someone says "Shouldn’t someone say something?" and Frank, the presumptive authority figure, walks away, muttering, "I don’t think I’m the right person." One of the survivors is a Mexican whose habit of praying before meals prompts a feeble joke about a boxer crossing himself before a match, though the Mexican doesn’t cross himself. There’s also a sanctimoniously non-religious Middle Easterner who declares, "Spirituality is not religion. Religion divides people. Belief in something unites them."
What saves this new Flight of the Phoenix from being entirely unwatchable is its sturdy structure, cannibalized from the earlier film, as well as some routinely impressive effects, and the desert itself, which is always endlessly watchable. Then again, the desert you can get anywhere from Hidalgo to Lawrence of Arabia. Visual effects you can get anywhere. And the rest you can get in the superior original film. Those who have watched that film have no reason to watch this one; those who haven’t ought not to watch this one, which would only spoil their later enjoyment of a good film with a bad one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.