Delayed for the better part of two years before its limited theatrical release, The Aviator (1985) attempts to serve up a high-flying adventure with shades of drama, action, and excitement. Based on the 1981 novel by Ernest K. Gann, it's directed by George Miller -- no, not that George Miller -- and was famously lambasted by Siskel & Ebert before crash-landing at the box office. It's also sandwiched right between Superman III and IV in Reeves' filmography by year, but isn't nearly as comically enjoyable as either of those. Though not without a few bright spots, it's a film whose greatest crimes are a flat story, cliched characters, and a predictable plot that leaves little room for genuine surprise.
The story, such as it is, goes something like this: after surviving a fiery biplane crash at the hands of a young student, Air Corps instructor Edgar Anscombe (Christopher Reeve) now earns his living as an Air Mail pilot during the industry's early days in 1928. Routinely travelling above mountainous terrain between Nevada and Washington, Edgar is tasked with transporting Tillie Hansen (Rosanna Arquette), the spoiled young daughter of a banker who owns his airline company. Unfortunately, botched maintenance during a routine stop-over in Boise leads to disaster in the air, and Edgar is suddenly forced to crash-land with his young passenger near a rugged stretch of mountains. Surviving in the wild might be difficult enough on their own, but their oil-and-water chemistry makes it even more of a challenge.
On the surface, The Aviator at least suggests the promise of an enjoyable "trapped in the wild" adventure with the added bonus of a decent cast; Reeve and Arquette are great when playing the right characters, and supporting roles are handled by the capable Jack Warden (Shampoo), Scott Wilson (In the Heat of the Night), and Sam Wanamaker (uhh...Raw Deal?). That's not to mention, of course, that The Aviator serves up outstanding aerial cinematography, a fine score by Dominic Frontiere (The Fugitive, Hang 'Em High), and a relatively brisk 98-minute running time. But there's just not much here to get excited about: the plot is extremely predictable, Rosanna Arquette's character is written as an obnoxious ball-and-chain, and the excitement level is unreasonably low for a movie that dishes out two plane crashes and a wolf attack. Convenient plot holes, easy coincidences, and connect-the-dots storytelling make The Aviator a movie that's enjoyable to a certain extent but ejects from your mind almost completely once the credits roll.
For those reasons, The Aviator is only worth a watch for curious fans of the cast, and of course it's worth revisiting for established fans who already own MGM's 2002 DVD (which I do, for some reason). But this is the very definition of a film that requires viewers to keep their expectations in check: it feels like a Hallmark production made for husbands, and can only be enjoyed if you're in the right mood for it. Kino's Blu-ray offers a decent A/V upgrade that highlights the rugged landscapes and Dominic Frontiere's score, even though the extras leave a lot to be desired.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Kino's 1080p transfer of The Aviator looks decent, but it's obviously sourced from an older master. Image detail and contrast levels don't seem as strong as they should for a newly-minted Blu-ray of a film that's barely 30 years old, although some of the persistent haziness may have been an intentional choice of the cinematographer. Colors also seem quite muted at times -- aside from obvious exceptions, such as the yellow plane and Arquette's electric lipstick -- while skin tones run a little on the pink side. But it's not all bad news: most of the outdoor scenes are at least passable and exhibit modest depth, with noticeable amounts of film grain and no glaring digital issues along the way (aside from chunky noise during a handful of aerial shots, which may again be part of the source material). The Aviator won't knock anyone's socks off, but it at least represents an upgrade over MGM's 2002 DVD.
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Not surprisingly, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (split mono) mix sounds perfectly fine with little room for improvement. Dialogue is clear and well-balanced, while scenes showcasing flight and other action serve up a modest amount of punch and dynamic range. Dominic Frontiere's score also benefits from this lossless presentation. Overall, this two-channel track easily gets the job done and, to its benefit, optional English (SDH) subtitles have are included as well.
The static menu interface includes options for playback, chapter selection, subtitle setup, and bonus features, with quick loading time and few pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes poster-themed artwork (similar to the soundtrack album, seen above) and a promotional booklet. Bonus Features are limited to the original Theatrical Trailer and a handful of unrelated Kino titles, which is hardly surprising.
Though not without a few thrilling moments, a solid score, and stunning aerial cinematography, The Aviator is ultimately too lightweight to register as anything more than a missed opportunity. Christopher Reeve and Rosanna Arquette at least attempt to generate a few sparks from otherwise flat characters, but not enough to overcome the lackluster story and script: The Aviator's biggest crime is simply being too cliched and predictable for its own good, which might make it a passable Sunday afternoon time-waster but that's about it. Kino's new Blu-ray won't sway anyone on the fence, either: the A/V presentation is OK but hardly remarkable, and its complete lack of bonus features doesn't justify the sticker price by a long shot. Rent It at the very most, unless you're a die-hard fan itching to retire your DVD.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.