Though it's one of the first films out in 1997, "Turbulence" feels like yesterday's movie. Its plot dynamics, its dialogue, even its special effects, are familiar for having been employed time and time again. And usually to better effect than they are here.
Not for the makers of "Turbulence" is the spending of tens of millions of dollars on computer-generated imagery. Most of the special effects this time around come from simply shaking parts of the set with a venerable device called a gimbal. Hey, it may be old-fashioned, but it works.
What's being shaken but not stirred is a 747 airplane headed from New York to Los Angeles. Because it's Christmas Eve (and because it's cheaper to film that way), the plane is almost empty: just an elderly couple, a rogue skateboarder and a couple of other folks.
Things don't stay quiet for long. Entering the plane en masse are four burly federal marshals escorting a pair of menacing criminals in chains: a bank robber named Stubbs (Brendan Gleeson) and convicted killer Ryan Weaver (Ray Liotta).
Actually, Weaver doesn't seem all that menacing. Though he's earned a reputation as the Lonely Hearts Strangler for having raped and killed five women, he insists he's innocent and seems solicitousness itself as he makes small talk with stewardess Teri Halloran (Lauren Holly).
Herself recently disappointed in love, Halloran insists to co-worker Maggie (Catherine Hicks) that Weaver "doesn't look like a serial killer," a judgment matched in acuity only by whoever told the Titanic's captain he didn't have to worry about icebergs.
Small as the group on the plane is, it's too large for screenwriter Jonathan Brett's purposes, and soon enough everyone else on the flight, from the pilots to the passengers and crew, have been disposed of one way or another, clearing the aisles for a cat-and-mouse game between the only two actors whose names can be found above the title.
As the unstable Weaver, who, it turns out, is so angry at the tough cop who arrested him (Hector Elizondo) that he doesn't care if he lives or dies, Liotta gives a performance that does nothing more than echo the legion of screen madmen who've come before him.
The same could be said for Holly's Teri, not the first woman to look distraught and terrified as a madman chases her around an aircraft and a major storm shakes everything up. Why she ends up having to both hold him off and try to land the plane in her underwear is something a special issue of Ms. Magazine might be devoted to.
Veteran director Robert Butler, whose career (mostly on television) extends all the way back to "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes," has not managed to lift this predictable drama out of the ordinary. Though it's fortunate for Teri that the plane is on automatic pilot during most of her struggles, it's unfortunate for the audience that the picture is similarly situated all the way to the end.
* MPAA rating: R, for terror, strong violence and language. Times guidelines: It includes several shootings and the particularly unpleasant strangulation of a woman.
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Ray Liotta: Ryan Weaver
Lauren Holly: Teri Halloran
Brendan Gleeson: Stubbs
Hector Elizondo: Detective Aldo Hines
Rachel Ticotin: Rachel Taper
Jeffrey DeMunn: Brooks
Rysher Entertainment presents a Martin Ransohoff production, release by MGM. Director Robert Butler. Producers Martin Ransohoff, David Valdes. Executive producer Keith Samples. Screenplay by Jonathan Brett. Cinematographer Lloyd Ahern II. Editor John Duffy. Costumes Robert Turturice. Music Shirley Walker. Production design Mayling Cheng. Art director Donald B. Woodruff. Set designers Daniel Jennings, Peter Kelly, Henry Alberti. Set decorator Donald Kraft. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
* Playing in general release throughout Southern California.