Monday, October 25, 2010


I don't usually watch scary movies, but when I saw the publicity photo for this one, with the cast posing in a piston twin, its very familiar cockpit prominent in the background of the shot, I had to see it. Fortunately it isn't really movie-scary. That's not to say that pilots watching this movie won't have nightmares afterward. Let me set the scene.

A non-instrument rated pilot with only a few hours multi-engine experience, poor weather assessment skills and an affected emotional state boards all her closest friends onto an aircraft she has never flown before, with inoperative wing boots, and without providing a preflight safety briefing, securing their baggage nor performing a weight and balance calculation. She departs beneath the dark bases of towering cumulus and then attempts to outclimb them in poor visibility in mountainous terrain.
None of these factors dooms the flight, but an authoritative preflight safety briefing may have helped their case. Or maybe not, considering what the film throws at the terrified group of teens. Unlike my typical movie 'review,' I'm not going to give the whole story away. Most of the scary parts are an old-fashioned movie of the imagination with some depicted B-movie monster fun.
Although some aspects of the initial emergency that drives the plot are roll-in-the-aisles funny to anyone who knows how an airplane works, the aviation parts of the movie show the hand of a competent technical adviser. I know her. She is a commercial pilot who worked on Wings Over Canada. The pilot runs accurate checklists and, before she degenerates into screaming "MAYDAY" on multiple frequencies, makes the most authentic radio calls ever heard in a major motion picture. The weight calculation that she performs in her head (in flight, after icing become a concern) doesn't include any moment arms, but it's almost startling to hear her use terms like "basic empty weight" and explain that the stall speed will increase with weight.
Sadly the movie does not escape the "we have to lighten the load!" trope, involving throwing baggage out of the airplane, but they do avoid cutting to the fuel gauge at dramatically more frequent intervals. The pilot even leaves the Janitrol heater turned off specifically to conserve fuel. You don't realize how many things there are to know about aviation until you see the high ratio of things they got right to things they got wrong in the details.
The aircraft callsign for the purpose of the film is C-MYXZ. That's not a real callsign, as Canadian registrations never have an M after the C. Registrations are often changed for movie purposes. The Americans even have a small group of N-numbers reserved just for movies. This is the first time I've seen this particular obfuscation on a Canadian movie airplane. Maybe it's M for movie. it's like a 555 telephone number prefix for airplane registrations. The actual registration on this airplane is personalized to the owner, while YXZ is about as generic as you get.
I think not being a giant studio movie placed fewer layers between the technical advice and the finished product, and the result lends a lot more verisimilitude to the picture than you'd expect from a scary teen movie set in an airplane. Even though the director may not have intended suspense based on a VFR pilot hand flying through IMC, my heart was pounding. Spotting editing errors like an outside shot of the aircraft crossing the hold short line while the dialogue has the pilot reading back a hold short clearance, or a huge split in the mixtures when both engines are functioning normally is just part of the fun.
So is the ultimate hazard to this aircraft to be a control surface malfunction? Icing? Structural damage from turbulence? Fuel exhaustion? Loss of control from disorientation (and the pilot constantly turning her head around to talk to the people in the back)? Psychotic passengers? Hypoxia? CFIT? Not even close. Try giant space octopus. That's not a spoiler: its tentacles are right on the movie poster. Advance publicity billed this as a Lovecraftian monster movie, but monster fans will probably be disappointed. Aviation B-movie lovers should buy it right away, though.
The writer confesses that the original ending killed them all by crashing into terrain, but the actual ending is clever and satisfying. There are still a few loose ends, but I'll just call them red herrings. My largest complaint is that the visual post-processing was done overseas by a mainland China shop. This is not a quality issue, but because there's a lot of taxpayer funding in this, Kaare Andrew's first feature film, I'd rather it have gone to local talent. I'll forgive them because apparently they tried to have it done locally and then there was some screw-up; a Chinese company, with a Canadian connection, saved the film. It's filmed in Canada with anonymized airports and nav aid names, but if you've been there you'll easily spot where they really are.
It's rated restricted in the US for "language" and a "sexual gesture," but it's not a sweary or obscene movie at all. Apparently in the US, a guy hidden by a seatback who makes a gesture that suggests he may be opening his pants and waggling his wang poses potential trauma for a sixteen year old, while kids are free to see movies where someone is bludgeoned to death, so long as no blood is depicted. (I recall no bludgeoning nor bloodshed in Altitude).
As you can tell from the date on this blog entry and the direct-to- video release date of the movie, I got to see an advance showing, but I don't have a personal or financial connection to the film or its crew. I paid for my ticket and for my own copy of the DVD.

On the topic of products being released imminently by independent Canadian entertainers and of entertaining fictional death, a year or so ago one of my favourite webcomic artists, Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics, solicited stories about a world in which a person could learn the manner of their death in advance. Selected best stories have been edited into an anthology, and the book is about to be published. In an attempt to get a little bit of attention to a book that major publishing houses wouldn't accept, they ask that if you'd like to buy the book, buy it on on October 26th, in order to spike the sales and get it on Amazon's bestseller list, just for a day. A more cogent argument for that strategy is here. Again, I have no connection to the product, didn't even submit a story, but I appreciate Ryan's work, and I'd love a world where artists did wonderful things and simultaneously had enough money to support themselves, without all the intervening apparatus of the ... I want to say "dinosaur publishing world" but that would imply that they were as cool as Ryan's character T-Rex.


Grant said...

My wife-the-pilot loves "heroic" monster movies... this is a Must See! Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I haven't been to Pit Meadows yet but by the process of elimination and google maps ... cool site.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see a web page where experts review a movie for accuracy.

Way back when I went with some friends -- all comp sci or elec eng -- to see Clear and Present Danger. At one point in the movie they briefly showed a "custom progam" to break into the CIA computer. A combination of Basic and bad variable names, we all burst out laughing ... and then we were being stared at 'cause we were the only ones laughing in the theatre.

Then, to make matters worse, one of my friends explained to his neighbour: "It's all right. We're computer scientists."

Atta boy, Kevin. Atta boy.

Sarah said...

Tempting, but I think I'll wait for Netflix. It's on my list, I'll watch just about anything to do with aircraft.

"My" movie is an old one - the first Jurassic Park. They had examples of systems I'd used recently, the CM-5 with all the blinkyLights, and the SGI desktop. "Oooooh! I know this! It's UNIX!" The desktop was displaying a toy graphics program which was a file system browser. It showed directories as "skyscrapers" in a 2-D world, with height proportional to content size. Not much to get wrong, they were pretty vague.

Grant, you're married to a pilot? Not sure you're lucky or unlucky, but at least you're understood. So many couples I know have one aviation-crazy one and a normal one -- an endless source of conflict and misunderstandings.

Unknown said...

Further to "anonymous"....In my teens/early 20's i went with friends (I had some back then!) to watch "Day of the Triffids "

The scene was a garden at night, the Triffids were rattling their "branches" Cclearly a bunch of bamboo canes....then they started to uproot themselves....unfortunately for the rest of the audience, the jerking strings,strips of hessian and fake grass as used on greengrocers' displays,was all -too apparent.
I howled with laughter (alone! ) and was nearly disowned.

The scene still causes a chuckle some 40 years later.