I feel as though I should be honest here and admit I’ve seen Flight of the Phoenix (at least half) a dozen times. Yes. It’s true. I am an avid Dennis Quaid fan (I even sat through Flesh and Bone for no other reason than he and Meg Ryan shared the screen). I’m also a big fan of the After Effects title credits when that roaring song “I’ve Been Everywhere” rips across the screen. The vast expanse of burning sand that is the Mongolian desert looks scorching, unforgiving, unflinching. It’s amazing to imagine people make their home there – fly kites there, even. These credits give you a real sense of the nothingness that lies just outside the mining facility where Frank “Shut-It-Down” Towns (played by Dennis Quaid) and A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) have flown in to pick up an Amacore oil crew who have failed to find oil. Kelly (played by Miranda Otto) takes the brunt of the blame as the engineer who has ultimately been unable to lead the oil crew in the right direction.
Quaid looks timeless, at ease in Frank’s character, in his worn leather bomber jacket as he flicks open a Zippo and lights a cigarette beneath that beautiful plane. It’s interesting to watch the way in which the characters interact when at once thrust together in the small hull of the plane before take-off. Priceless is the way corporate suit, Ian (played by pre-House-era Hugh Laurie) tells Alex Rodney (played by Tony Curran) as he takes the empty seat beside him “I think you might find it more comfortable, back there, with the rest of them.”
The take-off checklist banter between A.J. and Frank who are impersonating “the two Bills” (Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby) is classic and to this day does not fail to make me crack a smile. And as the plane lifts off, Kelly’s lilting look at the window at the rig they’re leaving behind, conveys the sense of responsibility she’s carrying on her shoulders.
The massive sandstorm the crew flies into is terrifying, even on a high-def plasma screen upon which the dvd is being upsampled – when most special effects in older films (granted, this is only five years old) don’t appear quite as “special.” The camera work here by the film’s DP (Brendan Galvin) is effective in that he we have a sense of the confined, inescapable destiny into which Frank drives them all as he pulls the plane upward in an attempt to get above the storm. The sounds, also, are horrific – all the sounds of grinding, bending metal.
“If you believe in God, it’s time to call in a favor,” A.J. says, as he informs the passengers they will be forced to make and emergency landing in the desert having been unable to rise above or get through the sandstorm. Your heart will flutter a bit as the plane begins to roll and plummet toward the Earth – even the most hardened, cynical amongst us can’t escape the universal fear of dying in a horrible, explosive, fiery plane crash. Just ask the guy who falls to his death in the sand after the tail of the plane is blown open.
I love the extra attention given to the plane crash, despite how uncomfortable it makes me feel – it’s absolutely massive in scale. The quick cuts here, between the plane’s exterior and the horrified, distorted faces of the passengers are fantastic. And as the plane, finally, slows to a stop, you may find yourself thanking God they’ve finally stopped crashing, but it’s really just the beginning of the most terrifying ordeal of their lives, after all, the “storm is blowing at 100 miles an hour out there – it’ll take your skin off before you get 5 feet!”
I wonder how many of these passengers would need a change of underwear at this point. I know I would. Several changes – in fact, no amount of fresh underwear would probably make me smell any better after an experience like that.
Do you know a suit like Ian (Hugh Laurie) who is immediately on his cell trying to make phone calls in the middle of the desert, in the middle of a sand storm? What a putz. Only the guy with the prayer beads has any idea what’s waiting for them the moment the storm dies down.
Luckily, they have enough peaches, hearts of palm (what the heck are those?), and water to last for about a month. Despite the fact that neither Frank or A.J. knows where they are after being blown more than 200 miles off-course. The survivors discuss the improbability of walking out of the desert to safety – after all, they’re in the Gobi, where you “drink a pint of water and sweat ten” and can’t use a compass because of the surrounding mountains which are magnetic. So, basically, horrifyingly, they are literally trapped in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the desert is so dangerous that if you go out at night, alone, to have a wee, it could be the last thing you ever do.
Many people don’t understand Frank having a shave with his portable razor, in the midst of all the chaos, but they just haven’t stopped to think about this small act of normality. I think it would be a relief and a kind of an escape – a tie to your life, your habits. Juxtapose Frank’s hygeine with Kelly’s grimy face, and frizzed-out hair…wow, what a stark contrast of who has it together and who doesn’t. Ladies, always carry a brush in your bag, and never let anyone as dishy as Dennis Quaid see you looking like you’ve lost it – even after a plane crash that’s stranded you in the middle of a desert.
Just about now, after realizing the probability for a rescue is next to nil, the survivors have decided that if they’re to continue surviving they need to take matters into their own hands. That’s when the mousy, soft-spoken Elliott (played by one of my favorite young actors Giovanni Ribisi) hatches his plane to take the pieces of their broken plane and fashion it into a new one.
“What do you know about airplanes?” Frank grills him.
“I design them, Mr. Towns. That’s what I know about airplanes,” Elliott says, flatly. “The design is perfect. The only flaw is that we have to rely on you to fly it.”
Frank shuts it down – saying the best option they have is to do nothing, to save their water supply and await a rescue. When another survivor, a young married guy named Liddle (played by Scott Michael Campbell) whose wife has just given birth to their first child, goes missing Frank finally realizes he must face up to his responsibility to the survivors. He sets out on foot to find Lidell. The scene is brutal and Quaid’s rakish voice makes me need a drink of water. I also find myself applying some Burt’s beeswax to my lips, just in case they start chapping like his. Frank stumbles upon some of the debris of their crash, which includes a dead body and a handful of shell casings. It’s the first time we hear the reference to nomads when Liddle emerges from behind some rocks.
When Frank presses Liddle for a reason as to why he’s left the group, Liddle says he needed hope and Frank’s do-nothing-plan gave him little of it. “You’re assuming I’m one of those people with hopes and dreams,” Frank retorts.
The two agree to build the plane if Liddle returns with Frank to the crash site, and with no other options than to wait for a slow death, the survivors undertake Elliott’s plan. They’ll work mostly at night, but they’ll also be drinking twice as much water – effectively cutting their lives in half.
Ribisi’s Elliott is perfectly effeminate and overly cocksure. His posture is over the top with his straight arms and tight shoulders, always giving you the sense that there’s something slightly off about him. I saw Ribisi once in Los Angeles near Pink’s hotdog stand, and can gladly report he is neither effeminate or overly cocksure in any way. He looks downright hilarious as he is blown off the wing of the plane at night when a few sparks set off a massive gasoline explosion. Watch it in slo-mo for full effect.
“Come to the Gobi they said. Great prospects they said. Sun. Sand. Oil…” Rodney says to Liddle during their first dayshift in the scorching heat. Both of them looking parched and just about ready to spontaneously combust.
“Two out of three ain’t bad,” Liddle laughs.
The montage scene (to the tune of “Hey Yeah”) features a very buff, very hunky 50-year old Dennis Quaid, shirtless on the wing of a plane is energetic, fun. I especially enjoy Ian’s trip to the bathroom which involves nothing more than a sand dune, a shovel, and a sign which reads “occupied” when in use. I would have no problem going to the bathroom in the desert, after all, I have an older brother and my family would go camping every summer – sometimes to places without conventional bathrooms. But, the idea of the suit having to drop trou in public is great – what a jab to his sensibilities.
I do find it rather comical, however, that Liddle must explain to Ian in the following scene what a “Phoenix” is (a mythical bird who rose renewed from the ashes). After all, who’s the educated suit and who’s the hired help?
“Everyone here is dispensible but me,” Elliott says after being confronted about his extra water consumption. And, I’m sorry, this is controversial, but I have to agree with him, however crappy that is. I, however, would have discussed this with everyone beforehand.
When Kelly hears two gun shots, a handful of the survivors go to investigate as night falls on the desert. “Angel” by Massive Attack is used to great effect during this scene in which Frank, A.J., Alex, and Ian sneak up on a nomadic encampment. This is a fantastic song (one of my favorites) and it was such a delight to hear it used in the film. It’s gritty bass rifts and tense rhythmic undertones are partnered perfectly with the exchange between the survivors and the Mongolian nomads. It’s clear when things go wrong someone is going to get hurt – but it still surprises me when it happens in slo-mo and Alex is thrown backwards in a balletic arch. I’ve found out since (from our friends at Myth Busters) that this is physically impossible – a gun shot does not throw your body backward. No. Not even the blast from a shotgun would propel you backwards like this, let alone a handgun. But, wow, it sure does look beautiful.
As Alex lies dying in the camp from a gunshot wound to his chest, he whispers something to Frank. This is a perfect moment for someone to die – especially after the celebratory woo-hawing of the “Hey Yeah” scene – it pushes the survivors to make their actions mean something. Death is listening, after all, just like it was in another great desert film: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
Is anyone else as surprised as I was when Elliott shoots a nomad the survivors drag to the camp while they argue what to do with him? It’s so disconcerting when he says, very softly afterward, “Well, that settles that.” It makes me enjoy it even more when Frank and Elliott finally get down to it in the following moments and Frank lays Elliott out in the sand. I can think of a few people that could use Frank’s special way.
What Flight of the Phoenix accomplishes at every turn is to keep you interested, caring in whether or not this group of vastly different people will make it out alive. It’s fascinating to imagine the extreme anxiety and desperation one might feel in this situation. Flight of the Phoenix always seems to temper the hopeful against the bleak, which is something I find refreshing right now. For if they can survive a brutal plane crash and weeks in the desert under the scorching sun, can’t we survive insurmountable odds as well?
The final word: Flight of the Phoenix does more than get off the ground – it soars as a glossy suspense with a great cast, and exceptional production while doing justice to the original film of the same name.