A "Phoenix" is described in my Random House Unabridged Dictionary as "a mythical bird of great beauty fabled to live 500 or 600 years in the Arabian wilderness, to burn itself on a funeral pyre, and to rise from its ashes in the freshness of youth and live through another cycle of years; often an emblem of immortality or of reborn idealism or hope."
The title of the 2004 movie, "Flight of the Phoenix," would appear to refer to the airplane in the story that crash-lands in the desert and has to be rebuilt in order for its passengers and crew to escape. But it could also refer to this release being the second movie telling of the story, originally popularized in a novel by Trevor Dudley Smith (credited as Elleston Trevor). The first movie was made in 1965 and starred James Stewart, so this remake may signify a narrative that refuses to die and gets retold every few years.
Anyway, in order for any action-adventure movie to work, it has to take one of several courses: It has to plant its tongue firmly in its cheek and allow its readers to enjoy it as pure escapism. Think of the Indiana Jones or James Bond adventures. Or, alternatively, an action yarn can play it straight, in which case it has to be either very logical and realistic or very suspenseful and exciting. Think of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The Fugitive," "Die Hard," or "Speed." In the case of "Flight of the Phoenix," it takes the second option, attempting to present a realistically detailed account of a downed plane and the heroic endeavors of its survivors. Unfortunately, it's not tense enough, realistic enough, or exciting enough to lift it much beyond the ordinary.
Still, it's got its moments. The first asset is its opening song, Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere." It doesn't really set the right mood for the seriousness of the picture, but I like the tune. On the commentary track the filmmakers tell us they were trying to convey the idea of the movie's transport-plane pilots being like long-haul truckers, so country-western music was called for. I disagree, but it's their movie. I liked Dennis Quaid as Frank Towns, the pilot of the plane carrying a crew of oil riggers back to civilization when their oil well fails to produce; Quaid is always dependable. Plus, I liked the sights and sounds of the plane's crash-landing in the middle of the Gobi Desert. If the rest of the movie had been as intense and thrilling as this opening storm-tossed sequence, it would have been a great flick.
What's more, I liked the camaraderie and interpersonal relationships that develop among the airplane's crew and the oil-rig workers. Most of it is stereotyped, to be sure, but that's par for the course in these kinds of movies. I liked Giovanni Ribisi as the mysterious loner who tells the rest of them he knows how they can rebuild the airplane. He claims to design planes for a living, so after some consideration they go along with his idea. Ribisi is appropriately weird in the part, the way a Peter Lorre might have handled it in the old days. He also reminded me of Keefer Sutherland's creepy scientist in "Dark City." You never quite know where Ribisi is going with the character; a role, incidentally, almost exactly opposite his happy-go-lucky sidekick character in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." He's a most versatile actor. And I like Hugh Laurie in almost anything. Here he plays a snooty oil-company executive whose cost analysis of the desert project closes it down. I've liked Laurie since his days as a comic actor on British TV in "A Bit of Fry and Laurie," "Black Adder," and "Jeeves and Wooster," so it's good to see him getting ever bigger and more serious roles in Hollywood. Finally, I liked some of the cinematography and direction in the movie. It's not easy keeping an audience's attention for ninety-odd minutes with a single, static setting like a desert, and to the extent that we are kept interested, credit director John Moore and directors of photography Brendan Galvin and Donal Caulfield.
Unfortunately, for every up there's a down, and in the case of "Flight of the Phoenix" there is not only the crash of the airplane to consider, there are the purely mundane aspects of the aftermath. Once you know the setup, you know the result. It's just a matter of waiting for all of it to play out, and beyond wondering about the Ribisi character and the banter among the others, there's not much else going on. The characters argue, they wander in the desert, they almost die. Their choices are to do nothing and hope to be rescued before their water runs out; try to trek it on foot without a decent map or compass to guide them; or rebuild the plane. Once they settle on this last approach, that's it then.
Of course, we have the requisite beautiful woman along for the ride. Miranda Otto plays Kelly Johnson, a female oil-rig operator. Towns and Johnson take an immediate dislike to one another, which can only mean one thing: We'll have to watch them warm up to one another as the story proceeds.
The words "corny" and "predictable" do come to mind. I mean, these folks also just coincidentally happen to have all the tools they need aboard their plane to build a new one, including welding torches and power saws. What are the odds? There's also a scene about halfway through the movie where the airplane gets buried in a sandstorm. Now, when the characters dig it out, wouldn't it be in a hole? Instead, it's sitting on level ground. Maybe I missed something.. I'm slow that way.
Which brings up Quaid's role. What with this movie plus others like "The Day After Tomorrow" and "The Alamo," he seems to be getting more heroic parts the older he gets. Maybe Quaid has reached that age where Harrison Ford would have been ideal had he not outgrown such things. In any case, Quaid plays a hard-ass type whose cold, cranky demeanor at the beginning of the movie can only signal a softening up later on. He succeeds.
Perhaps the most annoying part of the movie, though, is the music. As I said, I liked the Johnny Cash number, but I didn't think it was appropriate. Likewise, most of the scenes are accompanied by loud, blaring music of one kind or another, most of it unnecessary and distracting. Add that to a whole lot of speechifying, with not a lot of real action going on and an ending that is pure camp, and you get a movie that could have been, maybe should have been, a lot better. But, then, if you don't like this one, there's always the 1965 original to watch.
The strong points of the video are the screen dimensions, a generous anamorphic widescreen ratio measuring approximately 2.13:1 across my standard-screen Sony HD television, quite close to the movie's theatrical-exhibition size, and the bright yet natural colors, with their general absence of grain. I did not, however, find the object delineation the best I've ever seen, the picture sometimes appearing a bit soft or blurred. I would attribute this to a bit rate lower than usual for Fox, meaning "Flight of the Phoenix" looks just a little above average for DVDs in general rather than looking like the crisp, well-defined products we usually associate with Fox transfers.
One can hardly fault the sound, which comes in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. In DD 5.1 it is deep, robust, dynamic, well balanced, and wide ranging. More to the point for a modern movie, the sound provides plenty of surround information, from the moment the plane thunders over our head in the opening credits to the time the closing credits finally roll. In between times there are the noises of the desert, the roar of the engines, and the screaming of the wind, all done to impressive effect. The only drawback, as I've mentioned, is having to listen to the soundtrack music at too high a level. Oh, well.
There's a fairly healthy selection of extras on the disc, perhaps at the expense of a higher bit rate for the movie itself. First, there's an audio commentary with director John Moore, producers John Davis and Wyck Godfrey, and production designer Patrick Lumb. From the random scenes I listened to I found the fellows helpful and direct in their comments, as they try to explain exactly why they did things in the film the way they did them. I'm not sure I could listen to very much of their commentary track, however, because I would not, personally, be interested in going through the film again in any detail.
Next, there is an exceptionally good making-of documentary, "The Phoenix Diaries," that's some forty-one minutes long. Here we get annotations from the cast and crew, mostly from the director and mostly on location during the shooting. It's far more candid than most such behind-the-scenes affairs, and it appears that the people who made it tried consciously to create a serious entertainment of it. True, the documentary gets somewhat artsy, but it's quite revealing as well. Then, there are four extended scenes at one-to-three minutes each; three deleted scenes, with or without director and production designer commentary; thirty-six scene selections; and, at start-up only, a Fox theatrical promo for "Elektra," "AVP," "Taxi," and "Flight of the Phoenix." English and French are the spoken language options, with English and Spanish subtitles.
"Flight of the Phoenix" is a sincere action adventure, but not a very innovative one. Not only did the first version of the movie seem more imaginative from not having been around before, it seemed less trite and melodramatic as well. Nevertheless, this new one's got a few thrills of its own, and its characters, though clichéd, are reasonably engaging. It's the sort of movie I'm glad I saw once but wouldn't want to watch again, at least not any time soon.