After nearly a decade of experimentation with motion-capture animation, director Robert Zemeckis returned to live action filmmaking last fall with Flight, starring Denzel Washington. The film tells the story of commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who must confront his demons after crash landing a airliner while drunk on vodka and high on cocaine. (You can read Neil Morris' full review here.)
Flight is a fascinating piece of filmmaking and a kind of stealthy movie business maneuver. The marketing and advance trailers for Flight highlighted the film's boffo action sequence — the plane crash — and the almost gimmicky angle of the airline pilot that shows up for work drunk. This is a news story we seem to see about once a month these days.
But as anyone who has seen the film knows, Flight is a much more complicated machine. The spectacular plane crash proves to be a kind of narrative feint concealing a harrowing addiction drama and character study. It's one of the strangest and best screenplays to come along in a long, long while. (It a nominee for this year's Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.)
Anyone interested in looking under the hood of this remarkable film will want to check out the superior bonus materials included on the home video release of Flight, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week.
In the first featurette, "Origins of Flight," screenwriter John Gatins reveals that the story was conceived in 1999, well before the media trend of drunk pilot stories or the heroics of Captain Sully on the Hudson River. Both director Zemeckis and leading man Washington (also nominated for an Oscar) go out of their way to praise Gatins' script. Zemeckis says that when he first read the screenplay, he realized it was the rarest kind of treasure — a complex R-rated character drama both sturdy enough to break new artistic ground and thrilling enough to punch through into mainstream success. Washington, among the industry's most in-demand players, signed on almost immediately. He considered the script "dangerous" and kept the first draft with him on-set as a kind of talisman.
The second piece of bonus material, "The Making of Flight," is the usual survey of behind-the-scenes footage and details on various aspects of the production. On a big-budget project like this, there are a billion moving parts. What emerges is a sense that Zemeckis ran a tight and orderly set that allowed everyone, cast and crew, to do their work properly. At one point, the director hints at the secret of his filmmaking recipe with Flight. "There's a wonderful quote from Francois Truffaut that I subscribe to," Zemeckis says. "'A movie that works is a perfect blend of truth and spectacle.'"
For techies and special effects junkies, the third featurette "Anatomy of a Plane Crash" is good, terrifying fun. The plane crash sequence in Flight is among the scariest things you'll ever see, big screen or small. In fact, it's maybe the scariest plane crash sequence since Zemeckis' last live action film, Cast Away. "I don't think they'll be showing it on airplanes in the future," jokes co-star Don Cheadle.
Surprisingly for a CGI maven like Zemeckis, many of the effects were achieved with old-school practical and optical FX, rather than computer generated imagery. Behind-the-scenes footage shows Zemeckis hanging 50 extras upside down in the actual fuselage of a salvaged airliner, using techniques invented by Stanley Kubrick 45 years ago for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There's no commentary track on DVD or Blu-ray — maybe they're saving that for the inevitable 10th Anniversary Diamond Platinum Edition or whatever. Physical media will surely be dead by then anyway, and you'll be able to download it directly to your frontal lobes with Apple's new iCerebellum.
If you missed your Flight in theaters, consider checking it on DVD or Blu-ray and make time to take in the bonus materials afterward. Flight is one of those films where the DVD extras genuinely enhance the experience. You get to see a good movie, then see how and why it's a good movie.
Also New This Week:
Hosted and produced by Keanu Reeves, Side by Side examines the impact of digital technology on the moviemaking process by way of interviews with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron. The doc doesn't draw any overt conclusions on the film vs. digital debate, but it persuasively makes the case that digital is only getting better, while 35-mm is standing awfully still.
Leading lady and co-writer Rashida Jones gets all the best lines in Celeste & Jesse Forever, a smart and dirty rom-com with a delightfully casual attitude toward the institution of marriage.
Marion Cotillard headlines the ensemble comedy-drama import Little White Lies, which has been described as a French variation on The Big Chill.
In Alex Cross, Tyler Perry takes over the title role in the crime thriller series based on the novels of James Patterson. Along the way, he earns some of last year's most savage and funny reviews.
Plus: Eric Bana in the thriller Deadfall; Kevin James in the comedy Here Comes the Boom; and reissues of Cabaret, Peter Pan, A Star is Born and the 1958 Japanese folk legend The Ballad of Narayama.