Free Fall (Movie review)

Mark (Bruce Boxleitner) and Renee (Jaclyn Smith) examining a piece of wreckage.

At long last, I have been able to see this movie, not because it’s good, but because it is quite mediocre. Even a news service, giving descriptions and ratings to movies in my province, gave this movie a 6 (1 being a masterpiece and 7 being an extremely poor movie.) At first, it looks like your average promising little made-for-TV flick. But as the ridiculous story unfolds, you find out you were in for two hours of wondering: “is this a real movie?”

Plot summary

Trans Regional Airlines flight 662 is cruising smoothly over the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. A senior flight attendant does small-talk with a mother, flying with her two young children. A rookie flight attendant serves drinks. The weather is excellent. Everything seems normal, until a flashing light alerts the flight crew of a problem with the rudder. Suddenly, passengers are jostled around the cabin and the plane enters a steep dive. The controls don’t respond… and neither does the flight crew, as air traffic control repeatedly calls flight 662. The plane scrapes the tops of several trees, disintegrates, and after bouncing several times, explodes.

Meanwhile, Renee Brennan (Jaclyn Smith), a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator, is about to dine out with her new boyfriend Mark Ettinger (Bruce Boxleitner), leaving her son Patrick (a teenage Hayden Christensen) home alone. The animosity between Patrick and his eventual stepfather Mark is visible. The phone rings. The NTSB informs Renee of the crash of flight 662, with no survivors, and asks her to be at the crash site at once. Mark, an investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is as puzzled as Renee: the crash occurred exactly one year after Trans Regional Airlines flight 331 crashed near Seattle.

Once on the crash site, Renee, an impromptu senior investigator, notices the frightening similarities with the crash. The anniversary date not being enough, the plane bounced, disintegrating, “just like in Seattle.” This prompts the presence of an FBI agent, Scott Wallace (Scott Wentworth), because of the suspicion that this is a tasteless anniversary gift. Renee’s cell phone rings. It’s her boss, Donald Caldwell (Nigel Bennett), informing her that Snyder, the investigator supposed to be in charge, was attacked. The connection is suddenly cut and Renee gets another call, this time from a mysterious individual (Hannes Jaenicke), describing himself someone appreciating her work, and asking if she appreciates his. She looks back at the crash site, understanding the significance…

This is the beginning of a series of very bizarre and senseless events, leading to the grounding, de-grounding, re-grounding, re-de-grounding… (you get the idea) of Trans Regional Airlines, to the great dismay of Richard Pierce (Chad Everett), CEO of the airline. Mark joins the team assembled near the crash site in the vicinity of Fort Collins. This is the usual case of the misleading “NTSB = good, FAA = bad” conception, as if things were always this simplistic.

Renee (Jaclyn Smith) and Patrick (Hayden Christensen)

Images of pieces of the rudder controls show stress, just like in the Seattle crash. This is one of the four potential causes Renee pointed out in her investigative report. Just in time for the mysterious individual to place a threatening call to Renee from the plane, then sneaking through a little door in the passenger cabin after the passengers have deplaned, messing up with the hydraulic system, and leaving the plane dressed up as a cleaning employee. The plane, leaving Salt Lake City as flight 728, later dives, hits the top of a building and explodes when impacting water near Oakland, in front of dozens of scared bystanders (in an eerie scene shot before September 11, 2001).

The team of investigators, already their hands full with flight 662, find a piece of the rudder controls in a suitcase found among the wreckage of flight 728. It looks more and more obvious that someone, somewhere, wants revenge. Especially when the piece of wreckage comes from the crash site of flight 331. A fax sent from an Internet cafe finally leads everyone to believe what the viewer had known all the long: the madman, Michael Ives (Hannes Jaenicke) is angry at Renee. We later find out he wants revenge for this NTSB investigator for falling under FAA’s pressure to blame the crash of flight 331 not on mechanical problems… but on pilot error. And who was the pilot? The madman’s late wife, Karen Ives.

Michael’s aim is to illustrate the four theories Renee had depicted on her report: stress, contaminated hydraulic fluid, a false alarm signal and an electronic systems failure. So far, he had depicted two. Which means… more crashes to come. Imagine the rest… it’s probably better than what the movie has to offer.

Appreciation

This film was indeed very poorly made. The initial crash scene seemed at first promising indeed, giving the impression that it would be light entertainment. It turns out to be a complete flop, with ridiculous special effects, bad acting, terrible one-liner dialogs, and nearly impossible plotlines, or shall I say, plotholes. This viewer doesn’t care about the characters, because the movie loses all its credibility as the story goes, and the series of crashes becomes tedious. It all looks the same, even if for once, I can say that I have rarely seen extras look this frightened.

Free Fall deserves no more than 3 out of 10.

Things to notice

Here are some of the many goofs, mostly caused by a poor mix of stock footage:

  • All the aircraft involved in the crashes are Airbus A320s from the outside. However, the cabin indicates a wide-body seating arrangement more proper to the Airbus A300/A310 with two aisles. In addition, the flight deck has a regular-style yoke as opposed to the usual joystick of the A320. Also, it has small windows above the main flight deck windows, yet another feature not present on the A320.
  • Some take-off scenes feature Boeing 737-200/300 series aircraft, while some others feature A320s. They are all supposed to be the same aircraft type.
  • The first crash scene is edited from the movie Fearless. This includes a shot itself edited from the movie Miracle Landing, where the front of the cabin disintegrates and only the hydraulic cables remain at the top (definitely not a feature of the fly-by-wire A320). The alert viewer will notice a palm tree on the left side, the logotype of fictitious Paradise Airlines, the airline name replacing Aloha Airlines for the purpose of the movie. The style of the seats, as well as the shape of the windows are not the same.
  • The crash site of flight 662 features a single-aisle plane, with a fuselage looking more like a Boeing 737-300/400/500 series plane. This is inconsistent with the description this author made earlier about the aircraft involved.
  • The movie shows two series of doors leading to the flight deck, and in between, an empty space. There is no such thing on commercial airliners to this author’s knowledge. The flight deck door leads directly to the cabin.

With the following details, it is easy to notice this movie was filmed in Canada:

Mark (Bruce Boxleitner) crying out loud for his life

  • The economy class cabin used for all the scenes is the same one as in Rough Air: Danger on Flight 534 and in the Discovery Channel/National Geographic Channel series Mayday! (Air Crash Investigation), filmed in Toronto.
  • Just before Renee boards the NTSB corporate jet (which bears a Canadian registration and Skyservice colors), the screen shows an airport with the caption saying it is National Airport (Ronald Reagan) in Washington, D.C. It is actually Toronto Pearson’s old Terminal 1. It is obvious Air Transat does not fly to Washington!
  • The ground vehicles and planes are nearly all either of Air Canada, the late Canadian Airlines, or Skyservice. There are even AVE containers on the last plane depicted in the movie, where the CP designator is masked with a small piece of tape.
  • Would you be surprised if I told you that in a scene supposed to be in a parking lot at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, a Canada Post truck can be seen in the background? The aerial shots of ATL and its several terminal buildings are very accurate.
  • The registration N9748C has been used in many movies and TV series up to now, such as Dallas, the made-for-TV movie Final Descent and the TV series Peter Benchley’s Amazon. It is a “reserved fictitious tail number” by the Public Affairs office of the FAA.

The aircraft

There are a total of six Trans Regional Airlines flights involved in this movie: flight 331 (crashed near Seattle), flight 662 (crashed near Fort Collins), flight 795 (crashed near Oakland), flight 729 (Oakland-Washington), flight 616 (Atlanta-Miami) and flight 227 (Atlanta-Washington). They are all operated by A320 look-alikes.

Movie links

Specifications

U.S.A. 1999, Produced by Falling Productions Inc. and Orly Adelson Productions. Directed by Mario Azzopardi. Starring Jaclyn Smith, Bruce Boxleitner, Hannes Jaenicke, Scott Wentworth, Hayden Christensen, Chad Everett. Also known as Crashs en série (French), Freefall – Angst über den Wolken (German).

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