The Aviator is a traditional sort of Hollywood entertainment that seems less old-fashioned than just plain old. Its setting and characters—a bunch of mail fliers in the late 1920s—are promising, but the story bogs down in a dumb plot hitch and just sputters away.
A withdrawn, soul-deadened pilot (Christopher Reeve) gets a special load on his Nevada-to-Idaho mail run: the spoiled daughter (Rosanna Arquette) of a local businessman (Sam Wanamaker). The plane goes down somewhere in southeastern Washington (doubled here by Yugoslavia!) and Reeve and Arquette have to make do as best they can, fighting the weather, the wolves, and each other.
The idea here, of course, is that Reeve will discover a new humanity through his reluctant friendship with this loud, endearing girl. That theme is unfortunately never given life in this flat adaptation (from Ernest K. Gann’s novel).
It’s too many different kinds of movie: There’s the survival story, the mismatched love story, the tense situation back at the fliers’ headquarters (with Jack Warden presiding), and the character flaws of Reeve’s friend (Scott Wilson). The overall conception is not strong enough to make these things mesh, so we care about nothing but the love story.
Even that is only interesting because of Reeve, who isn’t bad (unlike the Superman movies, he does his own flying here—Reeve really is a licensed pilot), and Arquette. She played Gary Gilmore’s girl in The Executioner’s Song and the lead in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You. She was extraordinary in both.
Here, she’s stuck with a whiny role that’s pretty thankless—and she’s dressed and photographed in an unflattering manner. Still, she has such a natural, spontaneous style, you can’t help but watch her. She’s going to be from heard a lot in the coming years.
We might have expected a little more zing in the outdoor sequences, since The Aviator was directed by George Miller, an Australian who made a lively—if utterly silly—directorial debut with the outdoor action pic, The Man from Snowy River. It’s clear from The Aviator that whatever prowess suggested by Snowy River was purely superficial.
By the way, he’s not to be confused with that other Australian director named George Miller, who so brilliantly visualized The Road Warrior and that knockout episode about the terrified airplane passenger in the Twilight Zone movie. For the sake of those of us who follow these things, couldn’t one of these directors adopt a middle initial?
First published in the Herald, March 13, 1985
Jeez you guys, stop teasing me about Rosanna Arquette—I’m telling you, that’s the way it seemed at the time. I couldn’t have foreseen how quickly her career would stall out, any more than you could have predicted the end of Yugoslavia. This seems to have been the biggest shot for that other George Miller, and it’s a stiff; it helped grind down Reeve’s Superman momentum, too. The books of Ernest K. Gann (The High and the Mighty, for instance) could be found in most houses of my parents’ generation, and I’m sorry to say I have yet to read one. One of his titles—Fate Is the Hunter—always gave me a good chill when I glanced at it as a child.