Here we have a rare example of a 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, the writers 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.
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 (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 annoyances, not disappear because the kid stopped being such a baby.
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.
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.
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 subpar 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).
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
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