Major aviation disasters in the movies can happen anywhere at any time for a number of reasons, as Mark Fraser has discovered.
10. The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978)
To show Dr Zonfield (Lee Remick) that he really has destructive telekinetic powers, John Morlar (Richard Burton) wills a passenger-filled 747 to fly into a London skyscraper. It’s arguable this moment of destruction now lacks the novelty it enjoyed back in the late 1970s given just about all contemporary audiences from around the world are now reasonably familiar with the New York 9/11 footage of 2001, when a couple of commercial flights actually flew into two of the world’s tallest buildings.
9. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)
A FedEx cargo plane carrying company employee Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) plunges into the Pacific Ocean after encountering a storm while flying to Malaysia. Director Robert Zemeckis and his cinematographer Don Burgess pretty much cover the whole thing using interiors, thus creating a dangerously claustrophobic environment of sheer terror. They revisited similar territory 12 years later in 2012’s Flight (see below).
8. The Grey (Joe Carnahan, 2011)
When a group of oil rig employees are stranded in the freezing Alaskan outback after their mid-sized passenger plane crashes, they are pursued by a deadly pack of wolves. Like the above Cast Away and Peter Weir’s Fearless (see below), there are no exterior shots of the accident – rather, all of the action takes place in the rapidly disintegrating cabin as the passengers and Russian crew try to buckle up before impact. A brief, but nevertheless effective, hair raising moment in what ultimately turns out to be quite a solid man-versus-nature movie.
7. (TIE): Airport ‘77 (Jerry Jameson, 1977)
Probably one of the last big budget, all-star Hollywood disaster movies to do reasonable business at the box office, Airport ‘77 follows the final journey of a privately-owned Boeing 747 that crash lands and sinks somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle after a botched hijack-robbery. It is then up to Captain Don Gallagher (a very stoic and straight-faced Jack Lemmon) to help lead his passengers to safety. While this third installment of the Airport franchise is, in many ways, somewhat sillier than its predecessor Airport 1975 (which itself is fairly far-fetched), it does enjoy a better cast (including Lee Grant and Christopher Lee), contains more flashy spectacle (namely the plane’s night time landing in the ocean and its eventual rescue from the shallow underwater shelf on which it precariously rests) and is more fun to sit through.
7. (TIE): The Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1965)
In one of the great sets of opening credits in Hollywood cinema, director Robert Aldrich successfully introduces all of the film’s central characters as the cargo plane in which they are travelling comes down somewhere in the Sahara after it encounters a violent sand storm. A quite novel and economic approach to storytelling, this scene is given a boost by Frank De Vol’s dramatic score and Aldrich’s effective use of the freeze frame. Interestingly, the director’s son William – who plays one of the passengers – gets an opening credit to himself but is then immediately killed in the ensuing chaos. Remade by John Moore in 2004 (only this time set in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert) as Flight of the Phoenix.
6. Con Air (Simon West, 1997)
After a high security prison plane is hijacked by a group of inmates, it is forced to crash land along the main strip of Las Vegas after a planned escape attempt is thwarted by the film’s hero (Nicolas Cage). Unfortunately the worst of the escapees (John Malkovich and Ving Rhames) survive the carnage-strewn incident and steal a fire engine. Meanwhile, America’s most notorious serial killer (Steve Buscemi) disappears into the Vegas crowd. Undeniably the most light-hearted heavy duty aviation incident on this list, with plenty of action going on within and outside of the plane as it approached the bright lights of the desert city. A propeller slicing its way through the fuselage during a climatic fight scene between Cage and Malkovich adds a nice touch to the proceedings.
5. Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009)
Nicolas Cage pops up again, this time as Professor Jonathon Koester, an astrophysicist who discovers that some aliens are after his kiddie and the world is about to end due to massive solar flaring. While caught up in a traffic jam, Koestler witnesses the crash landing of a commercial passenger jet and runs to the aid of some of the survivors, many of whom are on fire as they emerge from the burning wreckage. Although it all happens pretty quickly, this scene delivers a fairly strong punch. Furthermore, it all looks frightfully authentic.
4. World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013)
Things go from bad to worse when it turns out that a passenger plane fleeing a zombie invasion of Jerusalem has one of the infected on board. As expected, all hell breaks loose in the cabin as civilized people are turned into crazies, leaving erstwhile UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and wounded Israeli soldier Lieutenant Segen (Daniella Kertesz) little time to figure out how to avoid being bitten by the rabid ones. In the end Lane literally throws caution to the wind by tossing a grenade at the advancing horde, the resultant explosion ripping a giant hole in the fuselage and sucking the zombies out. Luckily the pair get their seatbelts on in time before the plane hurtles into the Welsh countryside.
3. Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012)
Following a night of heavy partying and a bring-me-down cocaine breakfast, alcoholic commercial jet pilot William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) gets a busier hangover than he bargained for when he is forced to pull off the seemingly impossible task of crash landing his passenger-filled plane after its control mechanisms go haywire – at one point flying it upside down to maintain altitude. The pissed-off look on Whitaker’s face when the right wing of the gliding jet clips a church steeple just before it lands is absolutely priceless.
2. Alive (Frank Marshall, 1993)
During October 1972, a small Chile-bound commercial flight carrying a Uruguayan college rugby team and a few other folk smashed into the Andes. When the rescue team failed to eventuate, the survivors reverted to cannibalism to stay alive. The wrecked fuselage – which takes one hell of a beating during the horrific crash – remains an integral part of this true story throughout the rest of the film given it provides the remnant passengers their only shelter from the freezing conditions.
1. Fearless (Peter Weir, 1993)
Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) begins to think he is indestructible after living through a plane crash somewhere near Bakersfield in California while on a business trip. It’s only when he relives the experience at the end of the film (via a flashback in which the accident is vividly created by director Peter Weir) that he comes back to reality. Despite being dragged down by some melodramatic developments in its middle, Fearless is easily one of Weir’s best films and contains what is possibly the finest moment in his strangely eclectic oeuvre – that being the opening scene when a determined Klein leads a number of other passengers to safety through a haze covered corn field just after the plane has come down.