No one in the oil drilling business wants to see Frank Towns and his airplane. He’s known as “Shut ‘Em Down” Towns, and his appearance means your rig is done for and you’re out of a job. For that reason, the crew of an experimental well in Mongolia’s remote Tan Sag Basin already has a reason to hate Towns when he shows up unexpectedly.
Shortly after taking off from the site with the newly out-of-work crew onboard, Towns and his co-pilot, A.J., encounter a monstrous sandstorm too high to fly over and two wide to get around. Rather than turn back, Towns tries to gut his way through it. As his C-119 cargo plane is sandblasted and thrown around the sky, Towns heroically tries to keep control, but after one engine succumbs to the sand, the plane crashes somewhere in the massive expanse of the Gobi Desert.
The dazed survivors take stock of their situation. With strict rationing, they have enough water to last about 30 days. Walking out of the desert is out of the question; they’re not even sure where they are, since the storm blew them far off course. They’ll have to wait for rescue.
But then Elliott, the mysterious stranger who just "showed up" at the drill site, comes up with an idea: They can build a new plane out of the wreckage of the old. (He tells them that he is, after all, an aircraft designer.) The plan is put into motion and the new craft is dubbed Phoenix, named after the mythological bird that each morning arises anew from the ashes of its own death.
Throw in personality conflicts, dwindling supplies, lightning storms, a marauding band of gunrunners and a splendidly devious plot twist and you have the makings of a more-than-serviceable action/adventure flick.
Despite plenty of reasons to hate one another, the survivors manage to get around to working as a team. With the exception of one person, all willingly abide by the strict rationing rules for food and water. One man heads out into a blinding sandstorm to find a lost friend. Towns also volunteers to look for a missing passenger, even though he may be miles away in the trackless desert. And he puts his life at risk in a lightning storm to save Elliot.
Despite being injured and exhausted, one survivor declines the offer to rest because “people at home are counting on me.” Towns, originally believing Elliott’s idea to be futile, is talked into the salvage plan when he’s reminded that if a man doesn't have hope and "something to do" he'll just waste away. Later, as the team’s enthusiasm flags, Towns rallies them: “We’re not garbage. We’re people. We have families.”
A man steps in front of a bullet to save another's life. A few of the oil workers argue that they should help a wounded gunrunner who has just tried to kill them. “C’mon, he’s a human being!” one says. (But the outcome of the argument is anything but positive. See the Conclusion for a discussion of that.)
The legend of the Phoenix is based on Egyptian mythology. A.J. kisses his St. Christopher medallion, which he calls his “lucky man” medal. As the plane is buffeted by the storm, Towns announces, “If you believe in God, now is the time to call in a favor.” One of the castaways, Rady, fingers prayer beads as the plane lurches about.
Makeshift crosses mark the graves of those who died in the crash. When Towns is asked to say something over the graves, he declines. When a worker named Sammi prays before devouring some canned peaches, Rady comments, “I’m amazed that during this time you thank God for anything.” When Sammi comments on Rady’s prayer beads, Rady responds, “I’m spiritual. Spirituality is not religion. Religion divides people.” Rady then tells a priest-meets-rabbi joke.
A man says he doesn’t recognize another’s girlfriend in a photo; he then flips it upside down and says, “Oh, now I know her.” During the preflight checklist, Towns assumes his best Bill Clinton voice and rattles off a couple of wry sexual innuendoes.
During the sandstorm, passengers are violently buffeted in their seats. Unstrapped, A.J. flies up and hits the ceiling. A door is blown off the plane, and a man is sucked out; the camera follows his falling body until it splats onto the rocks below. (Towns later finds the man's body, which has been used for target practice by the smugglers.) Some of the passengers suffer bloody wounds in the crash.
The survivors engage in a shootout with the smugglers, and the camera lingers on a bullet wound in one man’s chest. (When it's inflicted, the scene shifts into super-slow motion as he's lifted off his feet by the impact.) We see the desiccated, sandblasted corpse of a man lost in a sandstorm.
A few of the men fight over a water container. Towns punches Elliott square in the face, knocking him down. A wounded man is shot point-blank. Company representative Ian pulls a gun on Elliot.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. About 25 uses of the s-word. "A--," "h---," "bloody" and "d--n" (used once with "god") all make appearances as well. God’s name is abused more than a dozen times; Jesus’ more than a half-dozen.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several of the characters smoke. (Why you would smoke when you're dying of thirst is beyond me.) One fantasizes about drinking a Bacardi and Coke.
Other Negative Elements
After narrowly escaping being crushed by a wing, Sammi asks, “Does anyone have a change of underwear?” We have a side-on view of a man urinating.
Flight of the Phoenix is a remake of the 1965 film of the same name starring Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough. The story has moved from the Sahara to the Gobi, Arab raiders have been replaced by Mongolian gunrunners, and the cast is more racially and sexually diverse, but it’s basically the same story—so similar, in fact, that in places dialogue is repeated verbatim. What’s different is the presence of crude, sometimes obscene language, a few sexual remarks and unnecessarily graphic violence. (Do we really need to follow a falling body all the way to the rocks?)
This new version does provide positive lessons on the value of hope, courage, selflessness and teamwork. But it toys with serious ethical issues pertaining to the value of human life without truly understanding what it's doing. To wit: In the original, the quirky engineer was vain and obnoxious, but he was still basically a decent fellow. Elliott, the airplane designer in the new film, represents a colder vision. Again, he’s vain and obnoxious, but he’s grimly calculating and utilitarian, too. [Spoiler Warning] As the survivors debate how to treat a wounded smuggler, Elliott “solves” the problem by executing him. A couple of his comrades are aghast (“You murdered him!”), but Elliott is unfazed. He counters by citing the man-hours that would be lost in trying to help the wounded man, the water he would need, the extra weight he would represent on the jury-rigged plane and so forth. Rather than let him (possibly) die of his wounds, Elliott reasons, he’s done the “merciful” and expedient thing by killing him.
How do Elliot's rationalizations hold up? Perfectly—if you view human life as nothing more than a mass of protoplasm and water. What's his status as the film concludes? Hero.