Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) is a cargo pilot sent to Mongolia to evacuate the staff of a shuttered oil rig. The facility is occupied by the usual motley crew, along with a nerdy hanger-on named Elliot (Giovanni Ribisi) who showed up at the rig one day and decided to stay. Now overloaded (shades of the 2001 plane crash that killed singer Aaliyah), the plane crashes after encountering an enormous computer-generated sandstorm in the Gobi. Stuck in the unforgiving desert with 30 days of water and only canned peaches to eat, Towns prefers they wait to be rescued. But oddball Elliot announces himself an aircraft engineer and prefers they rebuild the plane. After much hemming and hawing, the group embarks on their impossible mission, made more so by dwindling supplies, marauding nomads and frayed nerves.
While its Gobi desert setting is big, the missed opportunities are even bigger. Co-writers Scott Frank ("Minority Report," "Get Shorty") and Edward Burns ("The Brothers McMullen"), both of whom enjoy a reputation for not cranking out paper-thin characters and clunky dialogue, here crank out paper-thin characters and clunky dialogue. In fact, they seem almost defiant in their disinterest in the people we're supposed to be rooting for. Most of these movie archetypes don't even command our attention, although the Middle Eastern guy, the Irish guy and the guy who co-starred in "Traffic" seem interesting, if only we were made to care. And it's not as if the film has other things on its mind. Most of its 110-minute running time is spent on the survivors complaining about their fate and building the Phoenix.
More criminal is that Frank and Elliot's war of wills is never fully explored, denying the film a juicy center. While nobody is expecting the Col. Nicholson/Col. Saito mano-a-mano from "Bridge on the River Kwai," the cinematic potential of the Frank/Elliot conflict is another dropped ball. The only decent moment is when Elliot, in a particularly pissy mood, asks everyone to beg him to continue building the plane, something Towns is humiliated into doing.
Always the pro, Dennis Quaid handles his inevitable turn from crusty captain to emotional speech-giver as well as can be expected. As the oil rig's top honcho, Miranda Otto ("Lord of the Rings: The Second and Third One"), possibly replacing the monkey from the original, breaks up the all-male cast. What saves the picture from oblivion is Ribisi. With his dork ensemble of blonde hair and rimless glasses, Elliot is an awkward, persnickety fellow who seems always the outsider. But he throws this tired picture wonderfully out of whack, with each line reading an adventure. And as a bonus for fans of the original, he even kinda sorta looks like Hardy Kruger.
Ex-commercial director John Moore ("Behind Enemy Lines") is in it for the wrong reasons. Yes, there is some terrific aerial photography, the desert looks beautiful and he makes the most of the film's unchangeable setting. But, like engineers building an airliner, he follows the blueprint so slavishly that there's no room for anything new or surprising. Elsewhere, the obnoxious score by Marco Beltrami contains clichéd desert rhythms and the unfortunate appearance of the Outkast song "Hey Ya," which would have meant more 12 months ago, when the kids cared about it.
"Flight of the Phoenix" doesn't seem interested in being anything more than what it is, which is disappointing since there was much thematic and character potential. But, to put the best face on it, even during Oscar season, it's nice to know there's still loud and stupid popcorn entertainment to fill our bellies with empty calories. Starring Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi. Directed by John Moore. Written by Scott Frank and Edward Burns. Produced by John Davis, William Aldrich, Wyck Godfrey and T. Alex Blum. A Fox release. Adventure. Rated PG-13 for some language, action and violence. Running time: 110 min