Friday, May 13, 2005

Film: Just When You Thought Remakes Were the Worst

I had a few days off work recently, so I ordered a couple of movies from Netflix that I had missed when they were in theaters. Netflix is great for checking out a movie to see if it's worth the investment of actually buying the disc, and with these two, I'm really glad I checked before cracking loose my hard-earned cash.

The movies were the recent remake of Flight of the Phoenix and a pseudo-science fiction movie, The Day After Tomorrow. (That Dennis Quaid stars in both signifies nothing.)

The original Flight of the Phoenix, starring Jimmy Stewart, is one of my all-time favorite films, and I guess I should've known the modern-day remake would pale next to the classic. The good news is, the special effects are great. But it's almost as if making this film in color sucked all the drama out of it.

Basically, a group of oil workers flying away from a rig in the desert get caught in a sandstorm that brings down their plane. They have very little food or water, their radio's out, and because they were off course when they crashed, nobody knows where to search for them. Hostile nomads in the desert will kill them if they can, and if the desert doesn't do it first. But one of the passengers turns out to be an aircraft designer who realizes there are enough useable parts in the wreckage to create a new plane and possibly fly it out.

I was braced for the pointless inclusion of a token female character. You can tell she's a token by the fact that her presence serves no purpose and contributes nothing to the story. Nothing against Miranda Otto -- it's just that she's got nothing to work with. She looks great, and that's all she's there for. In fact, this pretty solid cast is largely wasted, especially Hugh Laurie, who has been doing some impressive work in television lately, in the British series MI-5 and the medical drama House, M.D.

But where the film really falls down is when it shifts much of the focus from the doubts about Frank Towns' competence as a pilot. It's mentioned in passing a couple of times, but the film is so busy painting him as the minion of a corporate empire bent on wrongly laying off a handful of hapless oil workers that the force of it is dulled. The self-doubt and self-loathing that practically dripped off Jimmy Stewart just isn't there. Even Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi) doesn't complain much when Towns makes the decision to use one of the last cartridges in an effort to start the engine, in a scene that was marvelously intense in the original version. And the lack of that tension makes the climactic effort to fly out of the desert, well, anti-climactic. There's no real doubt that the makeshift aircraft will fly. It's not Quaid's fault, either -- like Otto, he hasn't got the words on the page to pull it off.

Instead, the film focuses on a strange antipathy between the two pilots, Towns and A.J., and the oil workers. And yet, it never quite manages to get to a point where the group comes together and resolves this issue, either. Basically, they crash in the desert, build an airplane from the wreckage, and escape. Nothing changes.

So there really is no point to this film except to create some spectacular special effects. Unless you're easily impressed by CGI, rent a copy of the original movie, which is much, much better.

Then again, the 2004 version of Flight of the Phoenix didn't actively try to insult my intelligence, which can't be said of The Day After Tomorrow.

I passed on this one when it was in theaters because it was released during a time when I was so pissed off at both the Democrats and the Republicans that I wanted nothing to do with any film that smacked of political overtones, and the media were playing up the idea that the film was taking shots at the Bush administration. In doing so, they missed the real story: that this movie is a dopey piece of tripe undeserving of anything like the attention it got. If it hadn't been for the trumped-up assertion that it was somehow insulting to Bush/Cheney, The Day After Tomorrow wouldn't have rated 30 seconds on CNN.

The film revolves around and is consumed by the notion that an abrupt climate change could plunge the northern hemisphere into a new ice age essentially overnight. There's a drastic melting of the polar ice sheets that yields up huge floods and causes gigantic superstorms that last for a week, sucking super-cold air from the upper atmosphere that freezes solid pretty much everything north of Kansas. There's a sub-plot about a climatologist trying to reach his sullen teenage son, who's stuck in New York City, but don't be fooled into thinking there's a story here -- it's all about the pseudo-science premise being displayed in every possible fashion writer/director Roland Emmerich could figure out how to render in CGI.

OK, slow climate change wouldn't make a compelling disaster film; I concede that. But if you buy that we could experience a change from a temperate climate to a new ice age in a couple of days, you need to be returned to seventh-grade science class until you gain a grasp of basic thermodynamics. I don't care how many hydrocarbons humans burn, the temperature of Atlantic Ocean currents isn't going to drop dramatically in a week.

Now, I've come away happy from lots of movies that started from stupid premises -- after all, it's possible to use a stupid premise in a way that leaves the viewer satisfied. Hey, I liked The Poseidon Adventure. The problem with The Day After Tomorrow is that the stupid premise is shouted at the audience over and over again -- like we didn't get the point the first 20 times it was made -- and there's really nothing else to pull this film above the level of goofy knockoff disaster flicks like Volcano or Dante's Peak. People get drowned, they fall to their deaths, they freeze to death, they're trapped in intense survival situations. The only inventive bit here is that a few people get attacked by wolves.

Unless (again) you're really impressed by CGI effects and/or you flunked every science class after seventh grade and you just don't know any better, there's nothing here worth spending your money on. If you've got a jones that won't be eased by anything but a disaster flick, rent The Towering Inferno...quick, before they remake it.


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