This trim little adventure saga about the survivors of a plane crash in the Mongolian desert doesn’t waste any time assigning heartwarming characteristics or backstories to each member of the group; we barely learn most of their names. This is not a movie about redemption or a tender love story. The characters don’t get to impress us with clever and ingenious solutions to their problems, either — it’s not one of those movies where someone makes a radio out of rocks and sand like the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” This is a movie that gets your heart pounding the old-fashioned way — it is just plain exciting.
Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) are pilots sent to pick up the staff and equipment from an oil rig that is being shut down. Passengers include deal-maker Ian (Hugh Laurie), boss Kelly (Miranda Otto of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring), and her crew. And there is Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), a stiff, odd, mystery man who correctly predicts that the plane will crash because it is carrying too much weight.
Elliott’s calm diagnosis is in sharp contrast to the crash, with swirling sand and wind so strong that it rips the propeller off and slices into the body of the plane like a buzz saw. It is an extraordinary bit of film-making.
Burial of the fatalities is dispatched quickly, as are any chance of finding help through cell phone, radio, or trying to leave the site of the camp. So is the prospect of being important enough for the company to spend much time or money trying to find them. As one crew member points out, “We hitched a ride with the trash, not the other way around.”
All that’s left is Elliott’s idea to use the parts of the plane to build a new aircraft, to be named Phoenix after the mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes.
Towns thinks it is impossible. The odds are slim that they will be found, but he wants to maximize them by conserving food and water for as long as they can. But one of the crew persuades him that even with faster consumption, they should try to build the Phoenix. “If you can’t give them something to love, give them hope. And if you can’t give them hope, give them something to do.”
Can they work together? Can Elliott’s design fly? Will they get out before the nomads come after them? Well, this movie isn’t called “The Attempted Flight of the Phoenix.”
It holds our attention with appealing and sincere performances. Quaid is especially magnetic (and looks great with his shirt off) and he is well supported by Gibson, Jacob Vargas as Sammi the cook, Tony Curran as Rodney and Kirk Jones (rapper Sticky Fingaz) as Jeremy. The pacing is brisk and energetic and it has enough spirit to follow the unavoidable pep talk about hopes and dreams with Towns saying, “I’d do anything to avoid another hopes and dreams speech.”
Parents should know that the movie has intense peril and violence, including a very vivid plane crash, gunfire, and explosions. There are graphic images of wounded and dead characters. The movie includes some strong language (many uses of the s-word) and smoking. A strength of the movie is the portrayal diverse characters who are strong, brave, loyal, and committed and who work well together.
Families who see this movie should talk about what you can learn from the different ways that people respond to stress. How many different ways do you see in this movie? Who blames other people? Who works to solve the problem? Why does Elliott want people to say “please?” What was the right thing to do with the injured nomad? Do you agree with the statement about the difference between religion and belief?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the original, starring James Stewart, and other action movies like Apollo 13, Enemy Mine (also featuring Quaid), and Fantastic Voyage. Mature audiences will enjoy the director’s tense, exciting — and underrated — Behind Enemy Lines. They will also enjoy the television series, Lost.