After the job the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams did on the clichés of the “Airport” movies with 1980’s hilarious send-up “Airplane!” Hollywood studios have pretty much shied away from airliner-disaster flicks, if you don’t count such tripe as “Soul Plane” or “Snakes on a Plane.” The major exception is Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” which added texture and complexity to the real-life story by concentrating on Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s self-doubt about his decision to land his stricken plane in the Hudson and the contentious NTSB investigation of the crash.
Andrew (or Weiqiang) Lau’s “The Captain” is essentially “Sully” without the nuance, a throwback to the disaster-movie formulas of pre-“Airplane!” days. It’s based on an actual incident that occurred in 2018, in which a Sichuan Airlines flight, having departed Chongqing airport, was thrown into harm’s way over the mountains of Tibet when the windshield suddenly broke, leading to a loss of air pressure in the cockpit and, eventually, the entire passenger compartment. Captain Liu Changjian and his crew heroically overcame all obstacles to bring the aircraft in for an emergency landing; though there were some minor injuries, no one died.
As scripted by Yu Yonggan, the story is told in what strives to be semi-documentary fashion, starting with a long sequence detailing the crew arriving at the airport (Liu from the family apartment, where a birthday party is being planned for his little daughter) and the on-ground personnel going carefully through the pre-flight regimen. We’re also introduced to some of the passengers—a pretty stock group, with all the expected personality quirks and problems.
Then the plane takes off and, after some fairly rote scenes involving interaction among the wait- staff and passengers (like the oaf who’s irate about having to turn off his phone) and conversation between stoic Liu and his voluble young co-captain (Ou Hao), whom he sagely tells about his transitioning from military to civilian piloting, the accident occurs and all is thrown into turmoil both on the plane (where the co-pilot is nearly sucked out the window) and back on the ground, where terminal workers sprint into emergency mode. You can pretty much predict what will happen as the movie shifts from one locale to the other and back again; let’s just say that despite a fairly polished technical production (apart from a few subpar process shots), it all lacks depth, however low the crippled flight might plunge; the dialogue is often risible, the acting perfunctory, and the direction and camerawork unimaginative. Chan Kwong-wing’s terrible music score doesn’t help.
And despite its concentration on Liu—who, after surveying his plane returned to the ground, wants to apologize to his passengers before getting a tumultuous cheer from them as he exits the aircraft—the film, it has to be noted, is more than a tense survival story; it’s a celebration of nationalistic expertise and collaboration. Everybody—from Liu and his crew members down to the terminal workers who pump their arms in joy as the plane is saved and the citizens shown praying for a miracle—is depicted as part of a common effort, and the inevitable photos of the actual crew shown during the lengthy closing credits are accompanying by cards offering statistics about the extraordinary safety record of Chinese aviation. For all its melodrama, “The Captain” (originally titled “Chinese Captain”) is a decidedly jingoistic movie.
That’s why it was released in China in conjunction with the country’s National Day on October 1, 2019, celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic—the Communist regime—and the canny tie-in certainly played a part in its enormous boxoffice success: it’s raked in more than $300 million in just a couple of weeks.
The movie is unlikely to achieve anything like that degree of popularity in America. In fact, one might hazard a guess that more people here are likely to watch “Airplane!” on their Blu-ray players and streaming services this weekend than plunk down money to see “The Captain” in a theatre. But if you should want to time-travel back to the days when the “Airport” franchise was still considered thrilling, here’s your chance.