"What I like about this project is it really brings back memories of the old school Twilight Zone episodes--putting a group of people into a supernatural pressure-cooker and watching the different personalities boil out and boil over. That's what I liked, and that's what I'm trying to infuse in this...I'm trying to use that as fuel to cook my movie with."
- Kaare Andrews, director
I have a lot in common with my older brother: a fairer complexion thanks to our Scotch-Irish heritage; a sometimes-jittery stomach thanks to our frequently nervous natures; and a healthy fear of heights thanks to our, you know, being human. I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: My brother couldn't even leave the gift shop and head out on the observatory deck atop the Empire State Building (yes, even with the protective bars and screens that make it impossible to stumble over the ledge). I was braver, but my stomach didn't appreciate it. If hard-pressed to answer the question "What's the worst way to die?", I'd probably opt for drowning. But an airplane mishap is right on its heels, my stomach already tied up in knots at the mere thought of being so high and so helpless.
For that reason alone, the mere concept of Altitude already has me hooked in its airborne insanity. But I've fallen for that trick before--having been hypnotized by the trailer for 1997's Turbulence (perhaps White Zombie's awesome "More Human Than Human" revved up my expectations a little too much), I was severely crushed by its astronomical awfulness. It received Razzie nominations for Worst Actress (oh, poor Lauren Holly, also cited for her work that year in A Smile Like Yours) and for Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property (sadly, it lost out to Con Air). Will Altitude succumb to the same fate in the frightful skies?
Soon-to-be college graduate Sara (Jessica Lowndes of The CW's 90210) is taking advantage of her pilot's license (concession No. 1 of many the film asks you to overlook...just go with it!) to fly a charter plane across Canada to see a Coldplay concert. Joining her aboard the puddle jumper are Mel (Julianna Guill, perhaps best known to horror fans for a small role in the Friday the 13th remake), a wannabe filmmaker with her video camera ready to roll; Mel's jock boyfriend Sal (Jake Weary); Sara's cousin Cory (Ryan Donowho), an aspiring musician; and Bruce (Landon Liboiron), Sara's slightly serious and sullen study partner from college and a stranger to the rest of the gang (and as we soon learn, to Sara as well).
It's a relatively short flight, but those low clouds and impending weather aren't looking so good. Things start out well enough, but when the weather worsens Sara decides to rise above it for safety--but an unexplainable tail malfunction causes the plane to rise to dangerous levels. And when they roll right into a massive dark cloud that hinders Sara's visibility--and then realize they have no contact with ground control--they really start to worry. Did I mention that they may be carrying too much cargo and are also low on fuel? And those cabin pressure and temperature levels are soon going to be a problem, too. Yep...I'm already crapping in my pants just thinking about it.
To make matters even worse, the danger has exacerbated the conflict between the friends, who already had some issues to resolve before they even boarded the plane. There's a love triangle (sort of) to content with, and it seems that almost no one--even Sara--is warming up to Bruce, who's odd ticks and depressing demeanor irritate some of them (he's a little clingy and a little wussy, which doesn't sit so well with Sal). To make things a little more eerie, we have by now pieced together two pretty easy-to-fit puzzle pieces: The film's simple yet terrifying opening scene (which played to my worst fears) undoubtedly chronicled the fate of Sara's mother, a pilot who met an unfortunate demise. (There's another twist to that tale that you'll easily spot, but I'll refrain from sharing it just in case.)
That setup alone is simple and effective, the danger elements playing on the basic fear of flying that most people can relate to. That helps me partially forgive the teen drama that comes with the package, an annoying distraction from the film's strongest elements. You get the sense that the studio mandated certain casting decisions and story elements to make the film more appealing and "hip" to those 90210 fans eager to see their favorite Teen Magazine idols getting all angst-ridden on screen (cast members also have The O.C., As the World Turns and Degrassi: The Next Generation on their resumes).
The script makes a few blunders along the way, primarily in the behavior of Sal and even Sara to Bruce, while Cory isn't very likable, either. Collectively, their whining and general douchebaggery makes them frequently hard to warm up to (one development in particular near the 37-minute mark goes too far; its ultimate result could have been achieved in a far-less ridiculous manner). All of it is unnecessary, the script lowering itself to appease a certain demographic (there's also a music video vibe to some of the action, which contributes to the feeling). The film suffers the most during its mid-section, where the bulk of this pubescent paranoia plays out.
But thankfully, first-time feature director Kaare Andrews has another twist up his sleeve--and (unfortunately) one look at the poster or DVD box cover ruins the supernatural surprises that are in store. I'm not sure the film actually needed them (given a choice, I think the more realistic dangers are the truly terrifying ones), but they certainly help Altitude get back on track after the One Tree Hill-inspired antics temporarily derail it. An accomplished photographer, music video director and comic book writer/artist, Andrews' passions are clearly focused on camera. They are also reflected (with some help from writer Paul A. Birkett) in Bruce, whose love of comic books plays an important role in the film's second half.
There's a lot going on in Altitude, and you get the sense that simplicity may have been a more intelligent path to travel. Most assuredly by mere coincidence, the film shares some striking similarities (at least in tone) with Frozen, the Adam Green thriller about a trio of young friends trapped on a ski lift that hit DVD just a month before this one. Both films hone in on the brutality of nature, the helplessness of extreme heights and the fear of dark and unfamiliar territory--with the resultant blame and arguing that comes along with it. Green took a little more realistic approach to his work, and the performances and script in Frozen have more depth and believability to them.
But you have to appreciate the ambition on display in Altitude, even if that leads to some silliness. Sure, the sequence with a rope may have you rolling your eyes (as will many other sequences if you take the film too seriously), but it's still pretty entertaining. The film is like two episodes of The Twilight Zone in one, with a comic book aura that makes it more of a stylish effort compared to the cerebral approach of Frozen. That style fits well with the film's visual scheme, which makes the most of its low budget. Yes, it often looks a little obvious and perhaps a tad hokey, but it didn't bother me in the slightest--it works perfectly with the film's vibe.
And while the final twist and ending may not be entirely original to genre fans, it still works--putting a modest poetic stamp on the film. Altitude is flawed--it could use a tighter plot, smarter dialogue, better exploitation of its claustrophobic elements and a little more focus. But it's also a lot of fun, its visuals and premise frequently rising above the clouds. Outside of a showing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Altitude went straight to disc. That's an unfair label for the film to carry--there's love and passion on display, and even with its flaws the movie is far more refreshing and entertaining than many genre efforts. Andrews has done more than enough to make himself and the film stand out, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store next.
"This movie is not without its flaws--it's the first film. A lot of lessons were learned, not just by myself. But considering the circumstances and the constraints, I'm very proud of a lot of this movie...what we could do with so little is where we really shined."
- Kaare Andrews
With a film so heavily reliant on CG effects, the transfer can only do so much to mask the obvious. The 2.40:1 image is very strong, and it opts for the very dark blue hues that have become so popular in modern horror films. Flesh detail is solid, and other details like the sheen on a slick hangar floor impress. The film goes for some darker colors as it progresses, and grain is present throughout. A few alternate visuals--like flashbacks and video footage--also look intentionally softer or distressed.
The 5.1 track is full of sound, from the score to motor, from the rain to the howls in the sky. Andrews notes he intentionally hid a lot of elements in the subwoofer, and they make themselves known. This is a loud film that has constant noise, and the balance with the dialogue is solid. Subtitles come in English for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired and Spanish.
"This story's not really so much about fear as it is about the power of the imagination."
Warning: The bonus content review contains a few mild spoilers about certain plot elements.
If you had any doubt about director Kaare Andrews' dedication and passion for the project, his audio commentary cements his enthusiasm. I'm not usually a fan of solo commentaries (I enjoy the spontaneity and humor that can come from a group, which usually feels less rehearsed), but Andrews never lets up on this track--which is almost entirely focused on the technical side (which surprisingly never gets boring). While I wish he spent a little more time talking about his influences, intentions and thoughts on the story, what he does share is still very interesting--and a real testament to how much work and effort goes into the moviemaking process. It also helps that the man is pretty charismatic and engaging, traits necessary to hold your interest.
The birth of the project--which took two years to get off the ground--came from brothers Paul (the writer) and Ian Birkett (the producer whose color-blind status was one of the reasons Andrews selected a mostly blue color scheme for the film). Late in the track, Andrews notes how he consulted legendary producer Gale Ann Hurd about whether he should work on this smaller picture or tackle a bigger offer he had: "She said, 'Go make your Piranha II before you make your Terminator...hopefully it came out a little better than Piranha II. As crazy as this movie was, that was crazier." (Andrews says he is now working with Hurd on his next project, The Hunted.)
The director soon notes that there were more than 600 visual effect shots in the 21-day shoot, and those account for most of his comments. The film was almost killed when an FX company bailed, forcing the producers to enlist the help of Base FX in China--which resulted in a new set of communication challenges that had to be tackled (at least the project manager's porn mustache made the director laugh).
Rain also hampered the first day of shoots, while the director hit the skies for some aerial shots that had him fearing for his life (considering he acknowledges the Twilight Zone influence, his comments about helicopter accidents on film sets is unintentionally eerie). He also had actress Julianna Guill shoot from her character's camera, but the footage was too clean--so he re-filmed it on his iPhone while playing it on a laptop to help degrade it. He also talks about the various camera tricks and the shifting color schemes of the various storms, saying he wanted the film to "feel like a progressive journey in nature."
As for the other visual effects, the director shares his attention with detail--and his obsession with examining every edge of hair and the plane to make sure he never let viewers in on the "secret". He acknowledges the lapses in logic ("The film is ridiculous when you think about it logically...but those are things you just kind of go with and you hope everyone else goes with, too...") and reveals a lot of the technical "cheats". He never shies away from sharing his disappointment on certain shots, like the big storm reveal around the 25:40 mark: "This was one of those shots that didn't blow me away. It came quite late in the game...when I watch these movies, I cut it a little bit of slack." The blending of practical and CG footage proved to be a challenge, with details like black levels, clouds and rain a constant source of headaches.
The director also shares his mild disappointment with the sound elements, which were hard to mesh considering so many things competed for the viewers' ears: "My greatest disappointment of things that are easily addressable just with more time is the mix. It's basically a good first pass, but it needs more time."
Andrews talks about casting (and how he knows it's hard to swallow that the young and pretty female lead is an expert pilot), and the challenges the cast faced adjusting to the mostly green screen shoot. They waited to cast the lead role before choosing their other actors, which Jessica Lowndes helped with (and the fact that she was Canadian meant they didn't have to worry about the country's stipulation that the second-highest-paid actor hail from their homeland). Later, Andrews talks about how he learned to respond to the different learning curves and personalities of the cast, primarily Lowndes and Guill (who he notes was a lot stronger in earlier takes: "If you pushed her too much, she would lose it a little bit...she would start to fade"). We also learn about Ryan Donowho's stunt work on a key scene, Jake Weary's challenging emotional shot (where they called Gill back in to help) and Landon Liboiron's nervousness about inappropriately touching Guill (one of the more entertaining stories here).
Andrews also prompts a few laughs when pointing out the one "sexual gesture" that helped earn the film an unnecessary R rating (he also uses the word "magilla" twice, which made me chuckle...maybe it's a Canadian thing?). His discussion of the design elements behind the film's creature are memorable, with a giant squid, a vagina and an anus all coming in to play ("There's nothing scarier than a giant asshole...well, the only thing more scary would be if that asshole was lined with rows of shark teeth."). Still, the end result was another disappointment for the director: "Any time you show the monster, it's going to be a disappointment...you build it up and then you show it, and hopefully your audience has imagined something greater than anyone could ever create," he says. "I wish we could have gone a little further in our big reveal shots. I think the tentacles themselves look pretty cool...it's just those big monster shots that are just not up to par. They're probably 60 percent of what they should be."
Andrews--who talks a little about his comic book past and work (he took a break from X-Men to do this film)--notes that he's never pleased with his initial work. "When I draw or when I create anything, I always initially instinctively hate it, and that's a good feeling because you never want to be satisfied. You want to grow and have enough humiliation in yourself that you can keep pushing yourself harder and harder." You get the sense that the director is a little too hard on the film, especially when he notes he was disappointment in the lettering of the mock comic book he created (it didn't perfectly match the old EC Comics style). Many of the "mistakes" he points out will probably go unnoticed by viewers, but great directors are built on that attention to detail and that "never satisfied" drive. All in all, it's a track packed with detail, and a great listen even if you don't love the film itself.
Up next, Behind the Scenes of Altitude (48:32) is a highly entertaining look at the project. Broken into four parts (a short intro followed by pre-production, production and post-production), it has the whole cast and crew on hand for a look at the challenges faced--and the fun had--on the shoot. This is a nice complement to the commentary, expanding on a few of Andrews' stories that are better served with visuals (especially the challenges surrounding the final shots). It's clear the effort was collaborative, and everyone expresses how much they admire the first-time director (who looks like he's having a blast): "You get the best out of people when you empower them as opposed to trying to control them...that's my theory."
The cast members talk about their characters and the project, but what's most fascinating is to watch them at work in the small set surrounded by a 270-degree green curtain (and the resultant challenges faced by the cameramen and director of photography Norm Li). The post-production work is equally intriguing; it's amazing to see all that goes into one brief shot. Also interesting: Hearing producer Ian Birkett stress the "commercial" potential of the director and the film (aren't you at least supposed to pretend that it's the "art" that's most important?). Like the commentary, this is a great extra that sheds light on the movie and the creation process in general.
Up next, Green Storm (10:05) has the director narrating a high-speed look at many sequences, stressing the effort that went into the visual effects. He notes that the relatively low budget proved to put pressure on the actors and editors, as any mistakes would cost more money. Andrews' personality shines here: I dig his use of "Star Trek" as a verb (he notes the cast "Star Trekking it from left to right"), while he describes Lowndes' stunt double as "broad backed" (an adjective women just adore!) and a little more muscular than the actress, which he hoped wasn't noticed by viewers: "Her arms are a little more Hulkamania-ed out." (Hulkamania as an adjective? Bravo!). As in the audio commentary, many of his little side stories are fascinating--like how they had to remove some of the green screen reflection off of Guill's blond hair.
The Original Concepts Gallery presents a horde or storyboards and other images, including some cool poster concepts that show some intriguing marketing takes: "Like Open Water in the sky!" shouts one, while the other offers "One in three is afraid to fly. The others are already dead." (Classic!) The film's DVD trailer--which gives away far too much--is also included, as are trailers for other films.
A low-budget thriller that sets five friends aboard a charter plane that starts to experience some strange shenanigans, Altitude has a pretty cool premise that is undeniably spooky. If you can forgive the film's unfortunate foray into teenage angst, the rest of the film has plenty going for it if you can roll with its ridiculousness. A little Twilight Zone and a little comic book, it utilizes its visual scheme nicely and throws a supernatural element into the mix. That might be unnecessary (the film's more relatable scary set-up is its strongest asset), but I enjoyed the ambition showed by first-time feature director Kaare Andrews. Altitude isn't entirely original (and its unintentional similarities to recent release Frozen may dampen its impact a tad), but it's still a fun ride that shows plenty of promise and kept my interest. While a rental is probably the right suggestion for most viewers (I'd recommend the film for easy-to-please genre fans), the great bonus material--which speaks to the filmmaking process as much as it does to this movie--easily boosts the package to Recommended.