OCTOBER 28, 2010
Here we have a rare example of an ambitious low budget film with lots of effects and a risky setting (a tiny plane) that falls apart due to the things that come for free – a good script and likable characters. Altitude cost less than 10 million, but sports 600 CGI enhanced shots, which is on the level of a Lord of the Rings film, and impressively keeps up a good pace and interesting photography despite the fact that 90% of the film takes place in a seven-seater plane that the actors can’t even stand up straight in. But man oh man, the script seems hell-bent on dragging it down.
For starters, they have managed to create the least likable group of teens in a horror movie in ages. Christ, I liked some of the Friday the 13th Part VII assholes more than these clowns. I spent half the movie wondering why anyone was even friends with each other. The main girl (Jessica Lowndes, who I like but is possibly the least believable pilot since Julie Haggerty) seems to hate Bruce, her sort-of boyfriend, and her best friend’s boyfriend Sal is a complete asshole right from the start, and later we discover she has cheated on him with the other guy in the plane. Who am I supposed to like, exactly? I understand the need for conflict to ramp up the tension, but why do they have to be so hateful before anything bad even happens? And why can’t good people fight? I fight with friends every now and then, even when we’re not trapped in malfunctioning planes. You don’t have to paint someone as a completely unsympathetic asshole just so you can have another character be at odds with them.
I mean, seriously, at one point Sal grabs a rare comic book that Lowndes bought for Bruce and tears a page out of it (which, given the information we learn later in the movie, means that that is one meta comic book), laughing at him for being a “baby” and reading comic books. I’m sorry, in what universe do human beings act like this anyway, but since when is collecting rare comics a “childish” activity? If the guy thinks it’s lame, fine, but who destroys an acquaintance’s property just for “fun”?
And because these people are so unlikable or annoying, the twist just completely fails to work. Technically it’s actually an interesting twist, if not wholly original (certain episodes of Twilight Zone and the book/movie Sphere covered the same territory), but it just becomes laughable here. The poster and trailer promise a monster, and it IS there, but we discover it’s just Bruce’s manifestation, and that it can disappear in the blink of an eye if he focuses on something else. Thus, at one point Lowndes literally saves the day just by kissing him. I agree with the film’s notion that making out with Ms. Lowndes can solve your problems (a theory worth exploring!), but at this point I wanted the monster to kill these pains in the ass, not disappear because the kid stopped being such a goddamn baby.
There’s also another twist, one you can probably see coming early on. It seems Bruce is such a worry-wart weirdo because his parents died in a plane crash when he was young (one he survived). And the pilot of that plane was none other than Lowndes’ mother! Their plane crashed when they collided in mid-air with another plane that came out of nowhere and had no record of being in flight. Anyone want to guess where the movie ends up? Again, not a bad twist in its own right, but the execution is sloppy. Its telegraphed way too early, the idea that these two would be friends 15 years later is way too convenient, and it just seems far too Deus Ex Machina-y for my tastes.
But again, on a technical level, there’s a lot to appreciate and enjoy here. For a single location movie, the camera moves around a lot and keeps things visually exciting throughout. Some of the compositing is bad, but the monster itself looks great, as do the various extensions and such that helped make the plane seem complete on the exterior shots (one of the kids jumps out, attached via rope, to try to fix one of the plane’s problems from the outside). And again, the actors can’t even stand up straight, so it’s impressive that they can fight, move around, etc when necessary without feeling awkward or even cramped. Director Kaare Andrews really uses every bit of space to his advantage, and blends the CG with real world elements better than most big-screen/big-budget fare.
And when they’re sticking to survival/thriller stuff, it’s enjoyable enough, annoying kids aside. Everyone has at least a slight unease of flying, and somehow (at least, to me) these smaller planes are scarier than a big jet, in terms of “Holy shit what if THIS crashes” anyway. As everyone is so confined and panicked, it does create a lot of tension out of very little, not unlike Open Water or Frozen. It’s a monster movie that’s ruined by its monster.
If you do like the movie, or at least interested in combining low budget resources with ambitious scenarios/settings, going through the DVD or Blu-Ray will be worth your while. Andrews provides a terrific commentary that is largely technically oriented, but he is honest about some of the film’s shortcomings and discusses the challenges he faced without sounding whiny or accusatory – he seems to be genuinely grateful to have the ability to shoot a film at all and looked at the limitations as challenges instead of detriments. Then we get a cool look at the film edited together (on fast speed) without any of the FX inserted, so you’re just seeing actors on half of a plane with a lot of green-screen all around. Here he talks more about how certain effects were pulled off or why things had to be done a certain way, not unlike the commentary but with the visual information to help illustrate his points better. Then there’s a 50 minute making of documentary that takes you through the whole production. It’s similar to the one on Frozen in terms of structure and taking a more candid, nuts and bolts approach than a glossy marketing-driven types you see on most DVDs, but it lacks Frozen’s personal touches that elevated that one above most of its type. Still, a good piece, and again, budding filmmakers can take something away from it, which is always good. Some storyboards are also included, though I have little use for such things so I just acknowledged that they were there/functional and moved on with my day.
This is an Anchor Bay release, so do I really need to point out the good transfer? They have done consistently great work with their high-def titles and this is no exception. There isn’t a lot of color in the movie (black, blue, and green – that’s about it) but it looks terrific all the same, with minimal crushed blacks and plenty of detail. The grain amount is inconsistent, but I assume that’s just the film’s editor going overboard trying to hide some sub-par effects rather than a mastering one (and unlike most studios, AB doesn’t try to clear the film of grain, so I’d rather this than no grain at all making everyone look plastic). The surround mix is also quite good, if nothing spectacular (though the rears will get a nice workout with the nearly non-stop rain/storm sounds).
However, as good as they are with transfers, they sure do suck at the coding of the disc itself. For starters, we have to sit through the trailers at the top of the disc – you can only skip them one at a time, no bypassing to the main menu. This is really annoying, especially for a feature heavy disc that most folks won’t have the time to watch all in one sitting. There also doesn’t seem to be any resume capabilities built in, so even if I hit stop halfway through the movie, I’d have to go through the trailers all over again. Also, for some reason you cannot access the bonus features from the pop up menu while watching the movie, another “feature” that is offered on most if not all other studio Blu-ray discs. If Anchor Bay put as much effort into maximizing the format’s potential and user-friendly capabilities as they did their transfers, then they’d truly be the kings of the Blu-ray industry. Although, they did at least finally figure out how to give the disc an image and a name on the nav-bar on PS3 – it used to just say BDMV or something equally unhelpful.
With a few more passes at the script, this could have been a winner. There is much to appreciate on both sides of the camera, and the disc has a lot of great supplements, but ultimately the film itself never quite gelled for me. Rewrite this thing and try again!
Movie Score: 5/10
A/V Score: 8/10
Extras Score: 8/10
What say you?