Few things are worse than being jolted awake by a plane dropping into an uncontrollable nosedive—especially if you’re hotshot airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) and have been sleeping off a vodka-and-cocaine bender in the cockpit at 33,000 feet. Whitaker pulls a last-minute WTF maneuver—turning the jet upside down to slow the descent—managing a crash-landing with minimal casualties. He’s declared a public hero. Yet it soon becomes apparent that, miracle move or not, Whitaker’s relationship with booze and blow goes beyond the occasional indulgence.
Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has always had a knack for staging white-knuckle set pieces involving free-falling aircrafts—recall Jodie Foster’s harrowing hyperspace journey in Contact (1997) and the accident that kicks off Tom Hanks’s Crusoe-like odyssey in Cast Away (2000)—and the disaster that launches this drama is a doozy. (Expect fainting in the theater.) You’ll soon realize, however, that Flight is no more a film about flying than Shame was about sex; this is a story of the self-destructive lengths people will go to in order to salve their soul. Take out the opening jaw-dropper, and you’ve essentially got The Lost Weekend Redux. Despite Washington going the full nine yards ugly-drunk-wise, there’s little to distinguish this from every other entry in the cinema du addiction genre: You’ll get the requisite denial, hitting rock bottom and then rockier bottom, relapse and, finally, a moment of clarity. Even if you remove the questionable quasi-religious touches, Flight doesn’t quite soar past its narrative limitations. There’s plenty of virtuosity to go around here—just precious little transcendence.
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