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31 Days of Halloween: Altitude

Published Saturday, October 23, 2021 at 11:18pm

Tour the world
In a heavy metal band
But they run out of gas
The plane may never land
          —They Might Be Giants, "Shoehorn with Teeth"

This is more or less the premise of the movie Altitude. Well, there's no metal band. And they're on their way to a concert; hardly a world tour. Also, they don't run out of gas (well, not immediately, anyway). But the last sentence? Definitely the premise to the movie Altitude.

The movie opens in a small, private plane carrying a family of three as passengers. Dad is in front with the pilot, and mom is in back with their son. The pilot is trying to make casual and breezy conversation, but they're flying through some kind of storm and the kid is terrified. Suddenly another plane comes out of nowhere colliding with this one, and the plane breaks up and the passengers fall.

Ten years later some college kids are heading out to a concert. They drove last year and it took forever, and Sara (Jessica Lowndes) has just earned her pilot's license, so this year they're going to fly. Along for the flight: her tutor-cum-boyfriend, Bruce, her best friend, Mel, Mel's boyfriend, Sal, and Sara's cousin Cory. Bruce is nervous about getting on the plane, but is eventually convinced, and the flight starts out normally. However, every few scenes, the camera reminds us that a screw has been wiggling out of its place and it eventually falls into the mechanism that controls the altitude of the plane. Just as Sara notices this, the plane flies directly into a storm.

The storm is dark and scary, the plane is climbing higher and higher, and they can't raise anyone on the radio for guidance. The passengers are getting increasingly nervous, and it doesn't help that Sal has stepped so easily into the role of indefensible jerk. He grabs a comic book that Bruce has received as a gift from Sara and starts tearing out pages. Things get worse. Everybody gets upset with everybody else, and Sal sees a tentacled monster outside for a fraction of a second. Cory ties a rope around himself and goes outside to try to rectify the altitude problem. He manages to do it but at the cost of his life, and Bruce has a nervous breakdown and needs to be restrained.

Even with control restored, Sara can't find the ground. Bruce admits that he was the child in the midair crash that killed Sara's mother in the first scene of the movie. He lost his parents and spent six months re-learning how to walk. Sara doesn't believe any of this. Then tentacles break into the plane and grab Mel, and Sal falls out in the pandemonium. It's just Bruce and Sara now.

Does this sound exciting to you? It's supposed to be, but it's really just kind of a muddle of action movie situations. My wife came in several times to ask for a plot update, and I made something up involving cultists and a competitive eating event. "I can't tell if you're messing with me or not," she said.

Anyway, at the climax of the story (I'm spoiling this one, sorry), Bruce realizes that all of this is his fault. All of the dialogue so far has come from his comic book, and the tentacle monster is his emotional state made manifest. Sara realizes that if he created the monster, then he can get rid of it, and manages to coach him through that; he replaces the monster with Sara's mom's plane, and Sara is able to avert the crash. Having successfully created a timeline where their parents did not die, Bruce and Sara allow themselves to run out of gas, thereby taking themselves out of the equation.

It's a weird movie with a weird ending, and none of it exactly works. The pacing is all wrong and it spends far too much of the movie establishing the characters, and not enough time on tentacles; It's full of shots looking out the windows at the storm that never bother to show us the monster. That was a confusing choice; the tentacles are right there on the poster but they don't really show up until the climax of the film. Up to that point, we're not really sure if what we're watching is a horror movie, or a misleadingly-marketed thriller and the revelation does not redeem the questionable choices.

Really, the poster is all I knew about Altitude when I went into it. I purchased it on DVD about a decade ago when the idea of streaming movies was still relatively new, and it wasn't clear that I'd ever be able to see it otherwise. I don't know what I was expecting; I didn't hate Altitude but I don't think there's much chance that I'm watching at again.

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