Monday, March 24, 2014

Altitude: Avoiding The Obvious "Crash Landing" Joke

Everyone who writes has different ways of coming up with stories, and in some cases it's not even a process into which the creator has conscious insight. I can understand why "where do you get your ideas" is such a frustrating question. But it's also a reductive question, assuming that the idea is the most important thing in the process. Coming up with a premise isn't necessarily that difficult, but a premise is just the bones, the basics - you still have to put flesh and muscle on the premise by coming up with a setting and characters and the events that get them from plot point to plot point. The best idea in the world lives or dies on the details, even the best story is going to come out like shit if it's told wrong. It's not just the idea, it's knowing what to do (and not do) with the idea as well.

Altitude is a classic case of filmmakers who mistake cool ideas for an actual story, and end up with something so enamored of those ideas that it fails to cohere into a decent film.

We open on a woman flying a plane, carrying a family of three and making casual conversation to distract them from the turbulence they're hitting. It's a tiny puddle-jumper, so they feel every bump. They talk about their son and his love of comic books, the pilot talks about her daughter and her love of dinosaurs. Everyone's trying to reassure each other when another plane comes hammering out of a cloud bank, and the collision leaves us with the pilot plummeting to earth.

Jump forward however many years, and a young woman is talking to her father as she goes to meet some friends, who are unloading baggage out of a car. She's Sarah, and her father is concerned about her taking a trip with her friends to a concert, and as it transpires, Sarah is that dinosaur-loving daughter all grown up. She and four friends are indeed going to a concert, but what Sarah's dad doesn't know is that Sarah is flying them there in a twin-engine plane that she's rented for the purpose. She's a licensed pilot. (Yes, it seems like a strange choice for someone whose mother died in an aviation accident when she was very young, but just roll with it. It's not like you have a choice.)

The friends are very much stock horror movie teenagers going on a stock horror movie road trip - Sal, a dumb jock who embodies every awful bro stereotype to the point of being actually repellent within five minutes of screentime; Cory, an affable musician/rock climber laid-back guy who's just sort of, you know, there; Bruce, a shy, quiet weirdo who likes old comic books and reads Sartre; Mel, an otherwise unremarkable young woman who exists primarily in relation to other characters (she's Sal's girlfriend and Sarah's best friend), and Sarah herself. Sal's swilling beer and making racist jokes and generally getting in the way, Cory's not doing much of anything, Mel is videotaping everything for some reason (she's a film major, I guess?) and Bruce is standing really far away from everyone else and is acting really tense. Nobody else knows Bruce - he's there for Sarah, and Sarah's busy between pre-flight check and trying to reassure him that everything's going to be okay. They're all very much collections of traits instead of fully-formed people. Really, the only ones who don't come across as complete nonentities are Sal and Bruce, and they're both pretty unsympathetic. It's not a promising start. So, dynamics firmly established for the viewing audience, they get on board and take off.

Everything's more or less going okay - there's some tension between Bruce and everyone else, Sal is never not an asshole about anything for any reason, and they're all bantering about whatever, but unbeknownst to them, a bolt has rattled loose somewhere in the fuselage and is now blocking the elevator. Sarah discovers this when she tries to lower their altitude after going through some weather and can't descend (Sal's comment: "There's an elevator on this thing?" I cannot make this shit up.), which wouldn't be an issue except that they're headed into a massive black cloud, and Sarah's not instrument rated. They're about to fly blind, and they can't do anything about it. From here, things start to get bad in a hurry - the plane keeps ascending into this massive cloud, the plane isn't rated for the sort of altitudes that commercial airliners are, there's no breathing gear on board, they've lost radio contact, and they're running out of fuel.

And then, Sal sees some sort of massive, tentacled…shape…darting in and out of the cloud.  

Altitude basically has a lot of the same basic beats as the far superior The Descent (The Ascent?) - a day trip goes wrong due to a mixture of accidents, hubris and poor planning, then it takes a bizarre turn into something far worse, creating a crisis that lays bare all of the hidden resentments and failings the characters have. But Altitude is not The Descent, because it fucks it all up by trying to cram entirely too much shit into 90 minutes, the last act of which is a gauntlet of plot twists that pull everything in such increasingly ludicrous directions that you just want to throw your hands up and say fuck it. It's not content to tell a single story, it has to tell three or four instead, all piled up on top of each other. It's not just the malfunction, it's not just the hostile environment, it's not just the stress getting to people, it's not just something strange outside, it's all of these and even more, all crowbarred into this tiny little plane. None of them get the attention or care they deserve, and in some cases they don't even make sense in terms of what's gone before. Nothing's allowed to simmer, nothing's allowed to build, everything has to be full-bore crazy from the first moment things start going bad so the overall feeling is "oh, what are they yelling about now?" instead of "oh shit, things just got worse." Once they realize that they're having mechanical problems, everyone sort of starts panicking loudly at once, which, although plausible, feels a little silly in the confines of a six-seater plane. Whatever traits the characters have just get turned up to eleven - Mel sort of freaks out ineffectually and keeps taping things for no apparent reason, Cory tries ineffectually to calm people down, Bruce freaks out entirely, Sarah desperately tries to keep it together since she's flying the plane (except when she engages autopilot so the filmmakers can have her do other things), and Sal kind of becomes a monster, a one-man Lord of the Flies remake.

And in cataloguing the traits that define these characters, it highlights what is probably this film's second major weakness - not only does it pile on a surfeit of plot, but everything about the characters (and for that matter all of the ancillary details in the film) only exist in order to tell this story. Everything matters, but not in a way that feels organic - it all feels crammed in so that it can be used to advance the plot or provide a twist later. It's a film so full of Chekhov's guns that there's no room left for an actual story. Why does Cory rock-climb? So that there's ropes on board when they need them. Why is Sal a wrestler? So he can put Bruce in a sleeper hold when Bruce freaks out. Why does Mel take pills for motion sickness? So she can O.D. on them later. Why did Sarah give Bruce a comic as a present? Well, that one's a spoiler, and a head-clutchingly ridiculous one at that. But the point is that it all feels really artificial. If something's going to matter later on, it should be as unobtrusive as possible so when it does slot into place, there's a feeling of surprise for the viewer - we shouldn't see it coming. Here, it's so obtrusive that it feels like everyone and everything in the movie only exist in order for there to be a movie - there is no larger world here, just whatever traits and features are strictly necessary for this particular plot to move along.

It's too bad, because there is something salvageable here - it's one of the few monster movies I've seen of late where I felt like the effects didn't fall short, being stuck in a plane is great for tension and claustrophobia, and then taking what is already a precarious environment and adding something even more bizarre to it could really push things into a great scary place (as in The Descent). But it really feels like the filmmakers started with some cool ideas, and then instead of being editorial about it and asking "what would make the best story?", they just went ahead and built just enough of a narrative structure around all of the cool ideas to turn it into a 90-minute movie, and then came up with characters sufficient to serve those cool ideas without actually making them recognizable as anything other than vague stereotypes. As a result, none of it ever really comes together into something worth watching.

Unvailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

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