Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fear of Flying

Snotty bourgeois college students have the life expectancy of a fruit fly, if you believe horror movies. Nuts with machetes, satanic cults, Eastern European sadists, remote Mayan ruins, ski lifts; you name it, the universe has it in for them. I have this theory about the repeated use of these characters in contemporary horror (I mean, apart from creatively bankrupt screenwriters kowtowing to perceived demographics or to tried and true formulae). These characters are like all of those affluent characters in Italian giallo movies, the ones who are massacreed in the midst of their bourgeois splendor as a kind of class warfare. Same here.

Anyway...The latest iteration of the college student as chum to cross my retinas is found in Altitude (2010, directed by Kaare Andrews), in which our stock obnoxious college students are put into a plane that malfunctions, causing it to climb ever higher. I have to admit to a certain level of admiration for the various horrific situations that screenwriters are dreaming up lately. This joins the situation in Frozen as a situation that I've not seen, nor even imagined, before. The story follows a group of five friends who have chartered a plane to take them to a Coldplay concert (which, by the way, suggests that they all have more money than sense, but that's another discussion). The characters are: The film student, the musician, the shy nerdy guy, the asshole, and the pilot. The pilot is Sarah, and she's our ostensible protagonist, the final girl if you will, who is fighting some demons from her past (her mother was killed in a plane crash) and the expectations of her military father. Unusual for this kind of movie: all five characters play the honorary Bill Paxton "We're all screwed!" character. It makes them all more unlikeable than they might otherwise be, and by the time the Lovecraftian entity in the sky shows up, I was ready for all of them to be eaten. The screenplay does the whole enterprise no favors by invoking the Curse of the Krell at the end, either.

For his part, first-time director and former comic book artist Kaare Andrews does fine with what he has to work with. He has, basically, one set and some low rent special effects to work with. The "one set" problem is mostly solved by this point by movies going back to Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Andrews has obviously studied the techniques used to make this work. The special effects work well enough by virtue of being mostly obscured by clouds, rain, and darkness. A few of the shots of the exterior of the plane in the film call to mind old school travelers in peril movies like Zero Hour and The High and the Mighty, but, hell, they aren't any worse than the sky squid that shows up in the last act, so what the hell. One wonders what Andrews could do with a better script and with better actors, because the visual sensibility is certainly there. The dramatic beats are another matter entirely...

Jessica Lowndes is as close to a "name" as the movie provides, having made a splash on the revival of 90210, and she's typical of this film's casting strategy. The filmmakers have placed "hot," young, inexpensive talent in front of the camera. It should be noted that the "hot," young, inexpensive talent in contemporary film is a LOT better than the equivalent thirty years ago, so this isn't necessarily bad, though it pays no dividends here. The performances, for the most part, are all pitched just this side of hysterical. None of these characters is developed beyond a type, and their "types" are signified by their props more than they are by any actual personalities. We know that the film student is a film student because she always has a video camera running. The musician is carrying a guitar (to a concert where he himself is not playing? Really?). The asshole jock is wearing a letter jacket. The geek has comic books with him. Frankly, this is all just lazy and bespeaks filmmakers who are either unwilling to let their actors work, who don't know how to work with actors, or who just don't care. This is the movie's crippling flaw, because the relationships at the end of the movie are paramount to the resolution of the plot, and lacking strong central performances and strong, well-written characters, it tends to leave the film dangling. Flapping, if you will, like tentacles in the wind.

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