Remember those toys you had when you were a kid, like little pasta machines, in which you’d insert a few chunks of Play-Doh, turn a crank, and it would come out the other side in a rainbow-colored rope? I picture one of those machines when I think about how Flight of the Phoenix must have been assembled. Take a moldering old script from a 1965 Jimmy Stewart movie; to add some empty visual flash, find a director whose previous credits consist of TV commercials and the ludicrous, offensive Owen Wilson vehicle Behind Enemy Lines; throw in rapper Sticky Fingaz and R&B singer Tyrese for “urban” appeal and a token chick to stand in the background and be sensitive; and get crankin’.
I’ve never seen the original film or read the 1964 novel by Elleston Trevor on which it was based, but on the evidence of the remake, I’m not rushing out to find them. The plot centers on a group of oil riggers whose plane crashes in the desert during a sandstorm. With little food or water and no hope of rescue, they attempt build a smaller plane from the wreckage, led by a vaguely sinister aviation engineer. Along the way, they meet with disastrous setbacks at regular intervals, all of which, naturally, they overcome through sheer grit and their indomitable will to live, though a few unlucky souls are lost along the way.
The script, credited to the usually dependable Scott Frank (Malice, Out of Sight, Minority Report) and the intermittently talented Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen, Sidewalks of New York), is an assemblage of cliches that had been worn out by the 1940s, the period in which most of the film seems to occur (the sudden appearance of an iPod and the ensuing dance number set to Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” produce a degree of cognitive dissonance from which I’m still recovering). In their ineffectual attempts to update the story, the filmmakers have gone only as far as changing the type of plane used from a Fairchild C-82 (introduced in 1944), to its successor, the C-119 Flying Boxcar (introduced in 1947), moving the setting from the Sahara to the Gobi Desert (presumably to avoid charges of anti-Muslimism by making the desert predators Chinese rather than Arab), and added an Arab character — though an atheist one (to further avoid any hint of religious controversy).
Flight of the Phoenix was produced by William Aldrich, who had a small part in the original and is the son of Robert Aldrich, who directed it (the younger Aldrich was also executive producer of the television remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, of which the same two points are true). Watching Flight of the Phoenix, one only hopes that the senior Aldrich, who died in 1983, is unable to look down upon what his son has wrought.
As Frank Towns, the initially-amoral-but-inevitably-decent captain of the downed plane (the Jimmy Stewart role), Dennis Quaid delivers a serviceable performance but is ultimately doomed by the clunky material. The other actors generally fair little better or worse, though Tyrese is notable for his inability to even deliver a believable reaction shot.
The one performance that’s truly fascinating is Giovanni Ribisi’s, though for largely masochistic reasons. I’ve liked Ribisi since his work on the asinine TV show “My Two Dads” in the late 1980s, and, while I haven’t seen every film he’s done, I’ve yet to encounter a performance as inexplicably bad as this one. As Elliot, the engineer who proves to be the savior of the crash survivors, Ribisi is otherworldly and epicene, with a speaking voice like the adolescent Matthew Broderick crossed with Mary Astor and a physical demeanor somewhere between Wallace Shawn and a drag queen. You don’t have to have seen the earlier version to figure out that the character was originally written as German; with his platinum hair and snaky mannerisms, he embodies the queasily stereotyped Kraut that flourished on the American screen during and for many years after World War II. I kept waiting for him to produce a monocle and a Persian cat to stroke.
Frank and Burns must bear some of the guilt for not reconceiving the character sufficiently in their script, and Moore certainly could have given Ribisi better direction, but I find it remarkable that an actor who is generally adept at finding the right tone for a character could go so far off track and into self-parody. I half suspect that, like Guy Pearce in The Count of Monte Cristo, Ribisi decided that since there was no honorable way of playing the character straight, he’d chew up as much scenery as he could before someone put a stop to it.
From the brief appearance of Paul Ditchfield, who bears a striking resemblance to the late Denholm Elliot; Ribisi’s subliminal Nazism; and the overall period look (despite the lame attempts to seem current, e.g. an already dated reference to “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”); it’s clear the filmmakers intended a sort of Indiana Jones flavor, scheduling a new catastrophe every ten minutes in mimicry of the weekly serials that inspired those films. But the action sequences aren’t as exciting as they need to be, and between disasters the film falls into deadly lulls in which we are expected to work up suspense over the fates of characters who are too shallowly conceived to have any resonance. With no higher a goal than the creation of an energetic knockoff of a thin pastiche, sadly, neither the script nor the director was up to the challenge.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()