If Robert Aldrich's 1965 Flight of the Phoenix had shades of Rod Serling's social abstract dramas under its Saharan sun, John Moore's 2004 update aspires rather to the computer-enhanced action blankness of Hidalgo. The twain meet somewhat in the new film, which flatly retells a high-concept Boy's Life adventure story that's hard to break, but easy to bleed of its significance.
Notable scripters Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight) and Edward Burns (the actor-director of The Brothers McMullen) retain most of Lukas Heller's plot beats, culled from an Elleston Trevor novel. In the Gobi Desert, two pilots, a planeload of oil-workers, a corporate stooge, and a mysterious drifter must band together after they run afoul of a digital sandstorm and crash-land. "This isn't about winnning or losing," one says. "It's about staying alive." Well, there you go. This qualifies as a reduction of the first film's more complex human dynamics, which use survival as a runway to go after other themes.
In 1965, James Stewart's guilt-ridden pilot Frank Towns subverted Hollywood heroism. Though the protagonist, Towns is almost always wrong, and must swallow his pride repeatedly to the almost-always-right Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger). In 2004, Dennis Quaid plays Towns, and walks winningly enough through one of his surrogate Harrison Ford heroes. But the screenwriters repeatedly give their mildly self-doubting Towns victories over Giovanni Ribisi's Elliott (the Krüger character, de-Germanized). Though Ribisi is made up to look like Krüger, with his pinched glasses and cropped platinum-blonde hair, Elliott is more psychopath than pragmatist as he guides the motley crew to build a new plane (the Phoenix) from the old plane's "ashes."
The ensemble also compares unfavorably to the original film, as these characters lack for any depth. Miranda Otto lends estrogen and the possibility of romance, though 1965's Connie Francis swooner "Senza Fine" seems much more romantic, even in the company of men, than Outkast's "Hey Ya!" (adopted here for an energetic montage). Brit Hugh Laurie enlivens his role as the oil-company man who quickly evolves from his belief in "corporate responsibility." The glittering diamond in the rough is Ribisi, whose eccentric performance as the petulant tyrant Elliott—complete with unplaceable but thick accent—is so bad that it's great.
Frank and Burns devise three notable twists on the plot of the original film, for those counting, though none lasts longer than a minute of screen time. A crisis requiring the plane to be dug out of the desert sand, for example, jump-cuts to the excavated plane. How did they dig it out? Was it difficult? How long did it take? Who knows? On its own merits, 2004's Flight of the Phoenix makes a pretty good time-waster, but from its Johnny Cash-scored opening credits to its jaw-droppingly trivial coda, the film mostly serves to advertise its superior-in-every-way predecessor, available on DVD.