WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
I missed this fun little popcorn thriller while it was in theaters and, based on the recommendation of a friend, decided to give it a shot on DVD. I'm glad I waited for DVD, because this disc offers up a hell of a presentation—particularly in the audio department—and it ain't a half bad B-flick actioner, perfect for the rumbling home-theater experience. Flight of the Phoenix—a remake of the 1965 James Stewart film—didn't make much of a dent at the box office, no thanks to me, but here's a movie that should find a healthy disc life.
Somewhere in Mongolia, the Amacore Corporation is in the process of shutting down a failed oil well. In a whirl of sand, hotshot pilots Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and AJ (Tyrese) show up to clear out the oil-rig crew and fly them home. Among the crew are feisty chief Kelly Johnson (Miranda Otto), an enigmatic little gnome named Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), and a hodge podge of personalities that will ultimately face the challenge of banding together for their very survival. Because soon enough, as the loaded-up plane departs the abandoned well, a gargantuan sandstorm kicks up and brings the plane down in a thunderous crash—in the middle of the Gobi desert. Without a working radio, and at the mercy of the severe elements, the survivors will have no choice but to use both their collective brains and brawn to find a way to escape certain death. Because water is running out, and the desert is just waiting to swallow them, plane and all.
The answer to their predicament is a novel one. The strange Elliott suggests that they might build a new plane out of the remnants of the crashed vessel. Although the idea is met with resistance—particularly by Frank, who finds the idea ridiculous—the gang finally puts their full energies behind the live-or-die solution, under the cranky direction of persnickety Elliott. One of the greatest pleasures of the film is watching how the components of the original plane are cannibalized for use on a new patchwork aircraft that will hopefully prove flightworthy. Can these heat-exhausted, desperate people overcome their differences and beat the dismal odds of survival?
Well, of course they can. What, did you think they were just gonna die out there? This is a Hollywood popcorn flick in the truest sense, so you have to forgive a lot of corny developments, and action scenes for the sake of action scenes. But if you have the right mindset—that is, just leave that brain behind—you're sure to experience a fair number of "wow" moments, not least of which is that initial plane crash.
It's not a perfect film, by any means. It never feels so much like a legitimate narrative than a story propped up by its action moments and its easy character moments. Although the actors do a fine job of inhabiting their cardboard roles, there's not really a standout among them. Even Quaid feels like an afterthought, and the eminently watchable Otto manages in this film to be merely watchable. Ribisi probably fares best, and strikes me as an actor who keeps getting more interesting: I believe he was the best thing about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But despite these summer-film problems, Flight of the Phoenix delivers some good cinematic energy if you're in the mood for some undemanding fun.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox presents Flight of the Phoenix in a very good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. Detail and sharpness are quite good, although I noticed an ever-present lack of clarity in backgrounds, enough so to be frustrating. However, on my 65" monitor, faces and mid-background action were clear enough and filmlike.
Particularly impressive about the Flight of the Phoenix transfer is its attention to its color palette. Shot in sepia browns and yet retaining a naturalistic feel, complete with accurately captured skin tones, the film has a rich Indiana Jones look despite its dreary desert setting. I was actually quite impressed with the depth of the palette and the strength of the blacks.
I noticed very slight edge halos throughout, but no other digital flaws. The print is pristine.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc offers two audio presentations—a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track. Honestly, these tracks are very similar to each other, and even on a high-end setup it's hard to find fault with either one. Performing a fair side-by-side comparison can be difficult, given that tracks can be recorded at different levels, and audio presentations have a myriad weaknesses and strengths. While performing comparisons on Flight of the Phoenix, I came away with only the very slightest differences, and at times even those could have been attributed to imagination. I feel I have pretty good ears for sonic differences, and if the DTS track is the preferred track here, it's not by a wide margin.
Both tracks offer an incredibly involving audio experience. This is a very active and engaging and loud effort that actually wowed me. Here's a movie that jolts you back into your seat and flies all around you. Prepare to be stunned by the first act of Flight of the Phoenix, in which all sonic hell breaks loose during the fateful plane crash. Panning throughout the room is fluid and enveloping not only during this sequence but throughout the film. Dialog is crystal clear with a natural timbre, and the score comes across powerfully.
I was particularly impressed by this film's surround activity, which is very active and engaging without being gimmicky. Bass is solid and rip-roaring.
You can't go wrong with either one of these tracks.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The extras on the Flight of the Phoenix disc look slight at first glance, but there's quite a bit of meat here.
First up is an above-average Commentary by John Moore, John Davis, Wyck Godfrey, & Patrick Lumb. That's the director, the producers, and the production designer, respectively. This is a jovial track with fun input from all participants. They talk animatedly about the challenges of the desert shoot, and they cover the usual topics—behind-the-scenes trivia, stories about the cast, and postproduction details. The key here is the chemistry of the participants, whose good time at the microphone give you a solid impression of their on-the-set camaraderie. This is an above-average yak track.
The 42-minute The Phoenix Diaries documentary is an outstanding, refreshingly honest look at the making of the film. At first, this seemingly amateur footage is sort of a turn-off, with the weird platitudes that begin it, as well as its first slow moments, but soon the documentary settles into a fly-on-the-wall groove with occasional on-the-spot interviews that lend a terrific in-the-moment feel to the production. Watching this weirdly malformed thing, I got a real sense of the mood of the set. We get very candid—and foul-mouthed—contributions from the major cast and crew, and many scenes find them just horsing around and spouting off, and it all adds up to an impressive collage of moments from the desert shoot.
You get 10 minutes of Extended Scenes, adding up to four segments. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, these scenes are hit and miss. One is actually pretty interesting, an explanation of the "seating on the wing" mechanics that are unexplained in the film. Others, however, such as the one involving finding the Phoenix after a storm and the introduction of motorcycles into the climax, are self-conscious or even ridiculous.
The 5 minutes of non-anamorphic Deleted Scenes add up to two justly deleted scenes, including a weirdly out-of-place slow-motion beefcake shot, and you can view them with optional commentary by John Moore and Patrick Lumb.
Oh, and you should know that the disc assaults you with a series of frenetically edited trailers for Elektra, Alien Vs. Predator, Taxi, and Flight of the Phoenix, as well as an antipiracy commercial.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Flight of the Phoenix is a fun ride, replete with fireworks and charisma, but that's about it. It's DVD presentation is quite wonderful, particularly either of two spectacular audio tracks. Image quality is good, and supplements are above average. At the very least, this one is worth a rental.