★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
It’s everything I hate about dead pretty teenager movies, and yet, there’s still a kernel of something watchable about this annoying but twisty film.
Directed by Kaare Andrews
I almost turned this movie off after the first twenty minutes. I normally don’t like to harp on the weaknesses of a movie at the beginning of my critique, but in this case, it is somewhat required. Altitude is a movie that walks in the tracks of pretty teenagers in peril movies that were the rage in the 90’s and 00’s. Scream spoiled us with a very good movie right out of the gates, resurrecting a trend that was also prevalent in the 80’s, but upped the production values of the VHS era exploitation fare, but also gave us a witty and fourth wall breaking script. Subsequent films like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and Final Destination continued that tradition, receiving a positive box office response, if declining in the quality of production. Altitude is very much of the lineage of these films, and the first act of this killing by the numbers coloring book is almost unwatchably frustrating.
The formula inevitably involved gathering a group of attractive college-aged would-be victims and kill them off one by one. Time-honored horror fare, but rarely particularly compelling. The lesser lights of this sub-genre usually featured cardboard cutout caricatures of a cast. Altitude is that in a condensed form. You have the plucky lead heroine, Sara (Jessica Lowndes), an overachieving young woman who has taken up piloting light aircraft, following in the footsteps of her mother who died piloting a charter craft in the opening scenes of the movie. She is joined on a trip to see Coldplay at an outdoor concert by her pretty videographer best friend Mel (Julianna Guill), Mel’s asshole wrestler boyfriend Sal (Jake Weary), her rock climbing cousin Cory (Landon Liboiron), and Sara’s new would-be boyfriend Bruce (Ryan Donowho). Right out of the starting blocks, the cast begins to exhibit all the worst elements of the dead teenager subgenre. Sal acts like a total ass-hat and antagonizes every single one of the other characters, and never lets up. Mel is oblivious and shows no reason why she should be dating this guy. Bruce is the sensitive loner, who also shows no reason why he should be in this particular group (hero alert!). Cory is the hipster artist, all snarky and cynical. This is the lowest-common-denominator tween-ty-something soap opera fare that you would recognize from the CW channel. (But they do it better.) Not surprisingly, things do not go as planned on their flight. A literal loose screw proves to be very troublesome for this flight, and soon the party finds themselves caught in a mysterious storm, and all the instruments and gauges stop working. Naturally, all of the drama that used up the first half hour of the film, makes dealing with this situation rather screamy, and full of bad ideas, both by the characters and more importantly by the screenwriter.
The movie spent a good chunk of the first act allowing Sara to participate in a lot of pilot-speak, and meaningfully point at gauges, and flip switches. Whether or not this is actually the way real pilots speak and navigate, I’m not sure, but there was some thought put into trying to make the piloting somewhat authentic. The fact that they took so much care into the techno-babble makes some of the later plot contrivances that much more frustrating. Hey! Let’s open the door to make an in-flight adjustment to the aileron! Good idea! Really? Something smashed open a window! Oh no! Look out! Wait… what happened to the smashed window? Shouldn’t the inside of the plane be howling with wind and freezing rain? Continuity quality control, please. Hey! Something smashed through the front window of the airplane! Shouldn’t that completely throw off the dynamics of a light airplane? Or at least blow the characters to the back fo the plane, because they’re traveling through a storm at 250 mph? So much for plausibility! This film fails the Mythbusters test repeatedly. Also, it drove me crazy to see all these people in a turbulent, chaotic flight NOT use their seatbelts! Come on!
So this movie is filled with annoying characters doing stupid things, in a world that defies its own logic. Why would you want to watch it? For the monster. What? There’s a monster? Yep. There is a huge Lovecraftian tentacle monster in this storm. It’s probably the most compelling reason to rent this movie… and it was for me… I fell for the box cover art that shows the tentacles. You probably opened up this blog post because you saw the tentacle monster, didn’t you? Well, the monster looks great. And, its reason for being is a pretty clever bit of conjuration. The movie also has a wonderful bit of returning full-circle. There is a hint, late in the second act, that there is a causality loop nested into this storyline. It’s enough of a hint that I found it very satisfying to see my hunch play out at the conclusion of the film. In short, the ending makes this movie watchable.
Kaare Andrews is a comic book writer and artist for Marvel, and he explicitly references comics as his source material in this movie. The magic of the old EC comics, like Weird Science or Tales From the Crypt, is brought to the fore in this production. As a comic book lover, myself, there is a moment where Sal callously tears a vintage comic apart… and at that point, you KNOW something bad is going to happen as a result. A closing note: I am glad to see that Jake Weary was able to redeem himself by being in a much better role, in a much better horror movie, It Follows, and didn’t let a performance like this define him. He plays a heavy in both films, but in It Follows, the writing allows him to be at least a relatable villain.