Following his break-out performance as Superman in the 1978 blockbuster, Christopher Reeve deftly avoided being typecast in the role despite appearing in several sequels. However, his non-Superman flicks were a decidedly mixed bag. Virtually none of them were successful at the boxoffice at the time of their initial release, although Somewhere in Time found a loyal cult audience over the years and Deathtrap seems more entertaining now than it did in 1982. Reeve proved to be a good, if unremarkable actor, who had an affable screen presence and the kind of handsome features and physique that recalled the more traditional Hollywood leading men of days gone by. (Think Rock Hudson). However, Reeve's scattershot record of choosing film projects prevented him from fully capitalizing on his potential. There were too many boxoffice bombs along the way and Reeve sometimes returned to his first love, live theater, to continue to grow as an artist. One of Reeve's least-known films, The Aviator, has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The movie was based on the novel by Ernest K. Gann, who specialized in aerial adventure stories. (He wrote the novel and screenplay for John Wayne's smash hit The High and the Mighty.) The film opens intriguingly at a military air base in WWI. Reeve is Edgar Anscombe, a cocky pilot who is training a novice on his first flight when things go wrong. The trainee panics and the plane crashes, leaving the student pilot dead and Anscombe suffering from severe burns. The plot then jumps ahead by a decade. Anscombe is now a bitter and introverted man still haunted by his wartime experiences, especially the deadly training accident that he feels responsible for. He's now working for Moravia (Jack Warden), the owner of a small air fleet that delivers mail from Nevade across the western states. In order to supplement the company's meager profits, Moravia sometimes accepts a passenger to accompany the pilots on their route. Along comes Tillie Hansen (Rosanna Arquette), a perky but troubled 17 year-old whose father (Sam Wanamaker) finds her to be incorrigible. Against Tillie's wishes, he decides to send her to a strict, disciplinarian aunt in order to teach her social and personal values. Anscombe immediately resents having to take Tillie along on his next flight. He snubs her overtures at friendliness and makes it clear that he wants no part of socially interacting with her. However, while in flight over a remote mountain region, their plane develops a problem with the fuel line, forcing them to crash land. Both Anscombe and Tillie emerge unscathed but their trials and tribulations are just beginning. Anscombe admits he went off course to take a short-cut, making it unlikely that rescue parties will find them. Additionally, they lack shelter and food and are menaced by a pack of hungry wolves. All they have for a weapon is a pistol with a few rounds of ammunition.
Once the survivalist aspect of "The Aviator" kicks in, the film should soar beyond the bland opening scenes that predictably thrust the viewer into yet another one of those scenarios in which the leading man and leading lady bicker and kvetch at each other. However, director George Miller (not the same director George Miller of the Mad Max movies, unfortunately) establishes a leaden pace that makes The Aviator resemble a TV movie. You're practically waiting for the commercials with that omnipresent, creepy guy hawking My Pillow to pop up any minute. The film lumbers through some moments of crisis that don't pack much suspense. Dopey Tillie wants to smoke a cigarette and ends up burning down the wreckage of the plane the stranded couple had been using for shelter. Anscombe manages to kill some game for much-needed sustenance only to have it ripped from him by wolves. The couple decides they must try to make the arduous climb down the mountain to find help. In the film's only unexpected twist, Anscombe comes across a remote cabin only to find its eccentric inhabitant won't help him and threatens him with a gun. Reeve makes for a bland, boring hero in the under-written role of Anscombe and Arquette grates on the viewer like nails on a blackboard with her ditzy Valley Girl-like interpretation of a liberated young woman from the 1920s. The last, inexcusable cliche the screenplay thrusts up us finds the once-bickering Anscombe and Tillie now falling in love.
The Aviator does have some aspects to commend. Jack Warden, Sam Wanakmaker and Scott Wilson manage to outshine the leading actors and put some much-needed realism and empathy into their roles, although Tyne Daly is largely wasted in a minor role. There is a suitably old-fashioned score by the estimable Dominic Frontiere and the film boasts some impressive camerawork by David Connell. The film was shot entirely in Yugoslavia but it must be said that the locations convincingly resemble the American northwest. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray features the usually excellent transfer we've come to expect from the company and an original trailer is included. The Aviator isn't a terrible movie, just an unnecessary one that unfortunately helped contribute to the likeable Christopher Reeve's less-than-inspired career choices.