THE CAPTAIN (2019) review


In May 2018, on a Sichuan Airlines flight from Chongqing to Lhasa, the cockpit windshield shattered suddenly while the plane was 30,000 feet above the Tibetan Plateau. In the subsequent cabin depressurization, a co-pilot was half-sucked out of the plane and many passengers lost consciousness or succumbed to panic. Yet against all odds, the plane’s pilot (Zhang Hanyu) managed a miraculous emergency landing, with all aboard safe and sound, including the co-pilot. Less than four months later, Andrew Lau was already re-creating these events for the big screen, surely a record when it comes to rushing to cash in on true events.

The problem with The Captain is that, while the events it depicts must surely have been heart-stopping for the passengers, the pilots, the cabin crew, and their relatives on the ground, when translated to the big screen, they make for meager entertainment. Cabin depressurization is surely a terrorizing thing to happen in real life, but onscreen it’s just a plane shaking while people scream and hang on to their seats. Trying to reach an emergency landing zone must be an unbelievably intense experience for a pilot responsible of the lives of dozens of people, but onscreen it’s just fiddling with knobs on an instrument panel, intercut with scenes of people shouting at microphones in a command center. The only hair-raising moment here, is when the co-pilot is halfway sucked out of the cockpit, and that’s over very soon, arriving after a good half-an-hour of people boarding the plane and crew preparing for take-off (hardly riveting stuff).

Probably aware of these dramatic limitations, and seemingly inspired by the Hollywood plane-based disaster films of the seventies (think the Airport franchise), the filmmakers both fill the film to the brim with stars, cameos and recognizable faces, and try to succinctly flesh out the personality of as many passengers as possible. Of course, over a 100-minute runtime, they can only manage to populate the plane with the seven dwarves of plane travel: there’s asshole business class passenger, meet-cute youngsters, stone-faced old-timer, bickering couple… You know these types from dozens of other disaster films. Among the pilots and cabin crew, things are just as bland. The star presence of Zhang Hanyu is welcome, but the actor is clearly bored, playing the titular captain as a stern figure of perfection, matched in saintly courage and sense of duty only by Yuan Quan, who nevertheless gives the most vibrant performance in the film. Elsewhere, the excellent Zhang Tian’ai and Oho Ou get an atrophied little romance, while Chen Shu and Angelababy wring their hands on the ground, as the spouses of Zhang Hanyu and Du Jiang (who’s just plain weird as what passes for comic relief in the film), respectively. And after a protracted epilogue – the disaster part of the film is surprisingly short – we’re treated to a patriotic song, just to ram home the fact that this was not so much a human story, as a story about how indomitable the Chinese spirit is.

Long Story Short: A star-studded, technically solid yet strikingly meager disaster film. *1/2

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  1. Exactly how I felt. Is that a 0.5 points out of 5? I didn’t want to leave my thoughts in the public domain in YouTube videos as some Chinese may attack me

    • No, it’s one star and a half, out of five, yes. There’s basic technical competence so I couldn’t bring myself to go lower.
      Haha I think Youtube is still safe, though don’t venture anything on Weibo…

      • I was misled into watching it after many Chinese netizens gave it full marks. At best it was an average watch. I even fell asleep in the midst of the crisis. The air hostesses were pretty though

        • Yes, me too, my eyelids got quite heavy at some point, in the middle of the crisis as well. Not a sign of a gripping narrative…


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