As an inferno rages all around them, the terrified passengers are herded onto the aircraft just before the airport collapses. The young pilot pushes down the throttle and the jet rockets ahead escaping, by a matter of seconds, the rivulets of larva that threaten to engulf them all. Silhouetted by orange volcanic plumes the jet plane takes to the sky….
I am in a basement bar with a rag tag collection of expats, all hiding from the damp fag end of March. All the talk is of how the winter will never end, the rouble keeps on falling and how Russian women hate us.
`But, hey !`I exclaim, in attempt to lighten the mood, `Airport 2016 is due out soon!`
There are blank looks all round.
`Er, sorry…I meant Ekipazh.`
Ekipazh – some transliterate the title as `Equipage` – is a 150 minute long motion picture which has been showing at the cinemas since 21st April. The title pays homage to a classic Soviet film and TV series of the same name which in turn mirrored a much missed American cinema tradition. The director is the fifty year old Moldova born Nikolay Lebedev best known for a sports biopic called Legend no.17. Danila Kozlovsky, 31,fresh from appearing in a perfume advert with Kiera Knightley and starring in two Duhless films, is the star name. A team of five writers, lead by Tikhon Kornev scripted the film and it was shot in Moscow – the Komsomolskaya area in recognisable –as well as the Crimean peninsula.
Billed as concerning `bravery, self-sacrifice and human dignity put in trial by the merciless powers of nature` the film, funded by the National Film Foundation, has been all but compulsory viewing. Extensive billboard notices appearing long before its release, a +6 rating, extended runs in most cinemas, an internet promotion campaign and a novelisation in the bookshops have all made Ekipazh ubiquitous. World events, moreover, have ensured that it could not feel more topical.
The airline disaster film has a tried and tested flight plan. A family drama provides the backdrop and a big budget ensures that there are star leads in this. The climax, in which attention must be paid to technical detail (and real planes used), should be a contrived, but not too improbable, catastrophe in which the elements are implicated. The resulted mixture of adventure, suspense, human interest and technology works on the level of both a thriller and a feel-good movie.
It was the Canadian bestselling writer Arthur Hailey who put the subgenre onto the runway. Forty six years ago his novel Airport was adapted for the screen with Burt Lancaster starring. There followed a biannual franchise with Airport ‘75, ‘77 and ‘80.
In Airport ‘75 the stewardess needs to take control of a Boeing 747 which has collided with a private aircraft before Charlton Heston, her boyfriend, can be airlifted into the cockpit to save the day. Airport ‘77, however, upped the ante somewhat. A hi-jacked Boeing 747, filled with priceless art treasures, collides with an oil rig and thereby plunges down into the ocean where it stays submerged. Here Jack Lemon is the pilot who has to keep it all together before the oxygen runs out and help arrives.
All the romance of the air and the glamour of the jet flying elite was here and what is more the kids were allowed to watch them. They now look like chronicles of a gentler America, an America which could elect jimmy Carter. As the ethos became more dog-eat-dog in the Eighties, these films became the target of merciless satire in the form of the Airplane comedy series. A generation has come of age which knows the spoof but not the spoofed and are unaware that these were made by standing on the shoulders of giants.
The Soviet riposte arrived in 1980 in the form of Ekipazh directed by Alexandr Mitta, which would later be serialised on TV. This goes through the above mentioned formula with a checklist. This relic can be streamed on Youtube and is worth the effort as it still seems quite fresh – but the remake is bang on time.
Back in harness
This year’s Ekipazh revamps the bare bones of the plot. Kozlovsky is Alexey who has been born into the industry but is something of a maverick. Having been fired from the military, his father teams him up with the dour Leonid (Vladimir Mashkov). Together they pilot Tupolev T.Us and a love interest appears in the form of another pilot played by Agne Gooditye.
An emergency message draws them to an island in the Indian Ocean where a volcano has erupted. They land to save the people there only to have another inferno break out during their stopover. Their challenge is now to board all of the victims in two planes and get out of there whilst it is still possible to do so. They then realise that one of the planes lacks fuel for the homeward journey. They are called upon to transfer passengers from one plane to another mid-flight. Then they are required to land in a lightning storm….
Slick and contemporary
The special effects are neither over-the-top nor intrusive and the superb volcano sequences make us overlook the overstretched scenario. Kozlovsky more or less reprises his role in Duhless: that of the Impatient Young Russian Man and does so to perfection. (There is a preoccupation with father-son relationships, both real and metaphorical here).Also reminiscent of Duhless is the acknowledgement of present day realities. There is a sequence where the immigration crisis is highlighted and the existence of a female pilot just seems to be part of the norm. The film is less tub-thumping in its patriotism than might have been expected and this might reflect that it is available with subtitles for a foreign market. The denouement is an eye-opener too. Rather than being given medals the three saviours are ticked off for disobeying orders, but are allowed to work for …Aeroflot! Does this function as a critique Russian inequity or could this be product placement?
Kozlovsky and Mashkov represent no match for Lancaster, Heston or Lemon. Nor does the film boast the kind of haunting score that John Cacavas provided in Airport ‘75 and ‘77.In all other respects however Ekipazh carries the baton well for the airline disaster subgenre. Blowing off the cobwebs of a type of film some thought could never be made again, it is edifying to boot. Already, if Hollywood cannot be prompted to get those Boeings out on the runway again, I await Ekipazh 2018.
Please place your cynicism in the overhead lockers.