A film review by Craig J. Koban
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX
2004, PG-13, 112 mins.
2004, PG-13, 112 mins.
Capt. Frank Towns: Dennis Quaid / Elliot:
Giovanni Ribisi / Kelly: Mirando Otto / A.L.: Tyrese Gibson
/ Rodney: Tony Curran / Jeremy: Kirk Jones / Sammi:
Jacob Vargas / Kyle: Bob Brown / Doctor: Paul Ditchfield / Newman:
great number of critics have been openly critical of the new remake of the
1965 adventure classic FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX.
I approach remakes a bit differently than with simple-minded,
direct and obvious comparisons to the original.
For me, if I have seen the original, a small portion of the
remake’s success lies with how much freshness and life it imparts into a
story that’s already been told once before.
Realistically, if the remake has nothing new to offer viewers, then
what ultimately would be the point of seeing it?
A few recent remakes of classic films that I have been exposed to
were sensational, like Jonathan Demme's version of THE
MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, which did and exemplary job
with updating the original film as well as making the proceedings
surprisingly tense. Also, there was also last year’s THE
ALAMO, which made the legendary siege work by
infusing it with a palatable and sensitive human story.
comes the new FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, a rather problematic film for me to
dissect, having never seen the original, which starred a great
who’s-who of Hollywood talent (from Jimmy Stewart to Ernest Borgnine to
George Kennedy to Peter Finch).
Some modest research into the original allowed me to make some
eerie findings: the original film used a real plane instead of a
preponderance of computer special effects and was flown by an actual pilot
– Paul Mantz – who subsequently crashed and was killed.
Maybe if the makers of the ’65 classic had all of the CGI
trickery that modern filmmakers have at their disposable, then maybe a
life of one man would have been saved?
Perhaps that is kind of why the new film does not emotionally
resonate in the ways that I expected it to -
the effects detailing the plane and its amazing crash are handled
with such a high level of special effects that I was more absorbed by the
technique and not the human suffering.
to say, discussing this film version will be a focus on it alone and not
the original, which is kind of liberating in one sense, seeing that
critiquing it with the other looming in the background could impede my
new film does have a wonderful group of actors assembled.
The always dependable and likeable Dennis Quaid stars in the lead
role of Frank Towns, a gritty, arrogant, and gutsy pilot who has been
hired by a rather large oil company to bring their employees home after a
long operation in Mongolia has failed.
The “human cargo” along for the ride are a somewhat eclectic
group of misfits and colorful strangers: We have the chef of the
drill site, a rich and snobby executive, a group of grunt labor, and the
mysterious and enigmatic presence of one insecure passenger named Elliot,
played broadly, yet vaguely by one of the finest young actors of his
generation, Giovanni Ribisi.
Ribisi’s meager, yet fiercely defensive and proud character is
one of the highlights of the film, and his odd and peculiar quirkiness is
an effective foil to the other characters.
Frank and his party end up going on their “three hour tour…a three hour tour”…er…I mean…plane trip back home to civilization when disaster strikes. Frank’s plane suddenly runs into a gigantic sandstorm that causes the plane’s valuable radio antenna (never good to lose) and one of the propellers (definitely never good to lose in flight) to become ripped off. In a scene of convincing and breathtaking special effects and cinematography, Frank crash lands the giant cargo plane in the middle of the Gobi Desert (never, ever a good place to land). Even worse, the crash landing took the lives of two of the crew, not to mention that several vital rations and food were whisked out of the plane upon landing. When the survivors take stock and realize their situation, painful dilemmas begin to spiral around them: the amount of food and H2O they have is sparse at best (about a month’s worth), and the chances of any other plane spotting them overhead are slim to none and slim just left town. To make matters even more dire, native pirates of the desert are on the fringes and could pose a threat at any moment.
Frank T. Hopkins and his trusty horse Hidalgo when you need them?
then start to take a turn for the better, or maybe the ridiculous and
Elliot, who manages to makes himself as inconspicuous, unassuming,
and socially inept as possible, finally stands his ground and confronts
the group with a bold idea:
He explains that he is an engineer that designs planes (very
convenient to have one when you stranded without a plane that works) and
he believes, with a great deal of personal certainty, that they could
actually make a new plane out of the remaining parts.
Everyone, of course, thinks him to be a nut, but he rather proudly
retorts to Frank, “The design is flawless, the only fault is that you
are going to have to be the one that pilots it.”
Nothing like instilling the utmost confidence. Frank,
of course, thinks the idea to be inane, and when confronted by the idea of
hope, he dryly responds to one survivor, “You are assuming I'm one of
those people who has hope.”
rest of what happens in FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX will not be a surprise to
anyone that is familiar with the principles of “stranded characters
facing death, but need to survive” screenplay writing 101.
Considering the talent that wrote the film (it was co-written by
Scott Frank – MINORITY REPORT and GET SHORTY – and Edward Burns –
THE BROTHERS McMULLEN – some of the dialogue feels forced, hammy, and
Most of the characters are stock stereotypes that speak with the
necessary level of dimensionality that the screenplay demands them to.
Some individual characters are interesting and well drawn out
(Frank and Elliot for sure) but the others are largely dull cardboard
cutouts that serve the need to provide the film with dramatic tension and
of the dialogue is laughable, such as when one character pleads with Frank
when he wants to give up, “I find it hard to believe that a man who
learns to fly never had a dream.”
I also found Frank’s willingness to eventually succumb to the
plan and go ahead with it was paced rather too quickly and conveniently,
and I was especially a bit disheartened by the way the script makes Elliot
out to be such a social misfit and potential villain when, in all
fairness, he’s the key to everyone’s survival.
Sure…he’s a twerp, but he never makes a bad judgment, and at
one point in the film where he commits a seemingly foul and vile act, upon
close scrutiny he was right in his actions, even while the script pains to
make him into an antagonist.
Basically, the characters, more or less, behave the way the story
wants them to and not how they actually would.
I don’t think that these criticisms really do the film in on any serious
Okay, the film is
(I have read) a fairly
scene for scene re-imagining of the original 1965 film, but to the lay
viewer it works overall on its intended levels.
Sure, the film is not a rousing and nail-biting suspense thriller
about human survival the way TOUCHING
THE VOID is (that film is one of the greatest films
about human will, strength, and perseverance), but it’s not supposed to
I saw FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX as kind of a simple-minded throwback
picture to those types of entertainments from Hollywood’s past, the ones
with plainly idealized characters and stories that are noble, wooden at
their core, yet entertaining and modestly endearing and gripping.
sort of plays like another tall tale piece of fiction – last year’s HIDALGO.
You may remember that in that film its hero out-rode a sandstorm on
his horse and engaged in events that were beyond realism.
Yet, HIDALGO and PHOENIX are in the tradition of simple and broad
epic films, those types of action-packed, all-star vehicles that thrill
despite their implausibility because they are done with polish and a
slight tongue in cheek vibe.
I wrote that HIDALGO’S “characters are broad and likeable, its
scenery expansive and beautiful, and its action is well realized.”
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is a film not to be taken too
literally and realistically, but my comments about HIDALGO bare credence
for it as well.