Hollywood’s Plane Crash Trope from The Mountain Between Us to Alive

Kate Winslet and Idris Elba in ‘The Mountain Between Us’/Image © Twentieth Century Fox

“There was a dog here somewhere. All teeth and muscle. Real short hair. About the size of a breadbox. Makes angry gurgling sounds when he breathes. Looks like he’s jacked up on speed.” And in those six economical strokes, author Charles Martin introduces us to the third wheel that will skitter across the snowed-in High Uintas Wilderness range along with pediatric surgeon Ben Payne and magazine writer Ashley Knox when their tiny charter plane ditches above Northeastern Utah in his 2010 bestseller, The Mountain Between Us.

Martin drops some other clues along the way. The dog flies curled up on the pilot’s lap and later picks up the nickname Napoleon. It’s pretty clear: Napoleon is a French bulldog. Ashley Knox is less shaded in, but we do learn she’s a short-haired gamine somewhere between Winona Ryder in “Girl Interrupted” and Julia Ormond in the “Sabrina” remake. Dr. Payne, however, remains a cipher. Still, when billing was announced last year, fans of the novel seemed pleased with the casting of Oscar-winner Kate Winslet, but surprised by her leading man, Idris Elba.

Fox, the distributing studio, even took a little bow for color-blind casting, but there is nothing in his novel that indicates Dr. Payne of color or otherwise. The book is told from his point of view so why would he describe himself thusly? Or at all? In fact, the only really strong casting indication is that the dog in the film is not, let’s say, a golden retriever. When he made his way through last year’s Tribeca Film Festival with his film “The Idol,” director Hany Abu-Assad not only had his talent attached, but he had also locked his location high above the border between British Columbia and Alberta and was eager to share snapshots of the snow-white panoramas.

The only thing that wasn’t in place was the dog, and Abu-Assad was actively pursuing trainer Teresa Ann Miller to book her Cannes’ Palm Dog-winning, mixed-breed shelter dog brothers from Arizona named Luke and Bodie from the film “White God” who led that picture’s cast of more than 200 canines. It didn’t work out, and Abu-Assad wound up casting Raleigh and Austin to make their big-screen debut in the leading role. The surprising thing about this casting choice is Martin’s character, which is clearly described as a French bulldog, shows up on screen as a big, loping retriever.

When Fox debuted the film’s trailer over the blockbuster-favorite Memorial Day weekend, suddenly people were done talking about the controversial Elba casting, but couldn’t stop wagging their tongues about the dog, who appears in the trailer’s first act, wedged adorably between Elba and Winslet in front of a roaring fire as Winslet implores, “Look, I don’t want to die up here.” There are several more long shots of the dog romping in the snow next to the pair and then there’s a close-up of a mountain lion stalking the range as Winslet again conjectures, “We might die together” but the break-out canine stars are absent from the trailer’s second act.

“They’re gonna eat that dog,” one viewer fretted, “aren’t they?” The response was quick, but decisive, “Fuck this movie if doggo dies,” It doesn’t take much more to get the internet going bananas. Variety fanned the flames with positive negativism after the film’s September Toronto Film Festival premiere, telegraphing in a review, “The dog is okay. Repeat, the dog is okay.” Yeah, right! That same day, I was with my own French bulldog evacuating to New York from Irma-threatened Florida. We caught up on Martin’s Mountain on audio in the car. I was reminded of the book’s complicated structure. Payne relays events directly to the reader, but also weighs in with disjuncted narration on his doctor’s voice-recorder, which is set off in the text in italics. Not so much the audiobook.

Somewhere between the Carolinas on my own exodus, I wake in the middle of the night in a fleabag motel on the side of I-95. The audiobook is still playing from my phone. The passage I hear is about the plane’s pilot, Grover, which I mishear as Rover, and he is being buried. “He’s resting in a good spot,” Martin writes. “He can watch the sun rise and set, which I think he’ll like. I tried to say some kind words over him. He deserves better.” Dear God, I think. The dog does die. And I pull my Frenchie closer on the bed and stare at the ceiling while he snores loudly.

The point of this article is not whether Knox, Payne, and Napoleon successfully complete their four-week, fifty-mile journey with everyone intact; that would be called a spoiler. I suppose it is just to jive with Martin’s idea that disaster and the brutality of the natural world can push people closer together. His novel, and the subsequent big-screen iteration, are certainly not the first time a couple has been formed, diamond-like, by the pressure air disasters can conjure. And so, instead of closing this with a body count, we’d like to present five other pulse points on the road to that Hollywood hybrid: the plane crash, rom-com genre, from the one-two punch in 1993 that established the category to the 2000 dud that almost buried the emerging genre and some later variations on the theme.

“Fearless” (1993)
Peter Weir’s (to put it mildly) quirky film takes its cue from Rafael Yglesias’ novel of the same name. Jeff Bridges, whose brother Beau plays the dearly departed Grover in “Mountain,” is an architect who survives a crash flying San Francisco to Houston and the peace he makes with his own demise ushers in a sort of spiritual awakening for his new lease on life. The airline-contracted shrink, played by John Turturro, gives it a PTSD-meets-delusion diagnosis, triggering a meet-cute with crash survivor Rosie Perez, who is struggling with survivor guilt after losing her baby in the crash. Perez parlayed her role in “Fearless” into a best-supporting Oscar nom. The two Bonnie and Clyde their way through Bridges’ increasingly reckless attempts to cheat death again to prove he is as fearless as this film’s title.

“Alive” (1993)
Frank Marshall’s film contains one of the most harrowing airline crashes ever captured on film; don’t look for it on your seat-back device anytime soon. Playwright John Patrick Shanley ably adapts Piers Paul Read’s 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors about the Uruguayan rugby team who ditched over the Andes Mountains on their way to a match in Chile. Ethan Hawke portrays Nando Parrado, a team member who loses his mother in the crash and tends to his wife who is critically injured. After the team learns that the search for their downed aircraft has been called off after nine days, it’s Hawke, sitting vigil over his ailing wife, who proposes consuming the flesh of the plane’s deceased pilots.

“Bounce” (2000)
“Two strangers fell in love,” this bomb’s tagline reads, “one knew it wasn’t by chance.” This might be starting to sound familiar, but at the time, this Don Roos script was rumored to be the first and last product of an artificially intelligent screenwriting program Miramax developed. It really is the only plausible explanation for this film about Ben Affleck’s ad exec landing a major airline account, getting “bounced” from his flight home on said airline, which crashes, and finding himself in charge of their “comeback” campaign. Oh, did we mention Affleck is also romancing the widow of the man he swapped tickets with who perished in the crash? Gwyneth Paltrow plays the sexy-time wife and if her advice for then-boyfriend Affleck to take this role wasn’t the death knell of real-life “Bwyneth” romance, then perhaps it was her pronouncement that Ben’s ideal woman is “anything that serves cold beer in a bikini.” If you’re sitting down to “Bounce,” make that a kegger.

“Flightplan” (2005)
What happens when the Plane Crash Rom-com’s beloved is already dead and under the plane being shipped back stateside for his funeral? The always intrepid Jodie Foster answers this question by playing an aircraft engineer – incidentally, a post held by “Mountain” director Abu-Assad before he threw himself into filmmaking – who wakes up in-air to find that not only is her daughter missing, but the stews have no record of her ever being on the flight. Before you can say, “Have another Xanax, honey,” Foster finds herself cuffed by the plane’s sky marshal. Further, while the plane technically doesn’t crash, there is a detonator and bomb aboard, as well as an overwhelming debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes.”

“The Grey” (2011)
Come on, there’s no way we’re compiling a list involving airline intrigue and not including Liam Neeson. His beloved in Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” really just appears in a dream, but a letter to her in which he confesses suicidal ideation is a major plot point. As is his return flight from a gig on the Alaskan pipeline, which downs in a remote part of our forty-ninth state. This one could be subtitled: Napoleon’s Revenge as a pack of grey wolves mercilessly stalk Neeson and his surviving coworkers, eating them one-by-one. The film maintains a bit about atheism from the Ian MacKenzie Jeffers short story upon which it’s based. And that, along with reports of the cast eating wolves on set (Hello, “Alive”!), ran it afoul of both Christian groups and PETA, but it doesn’t take an artificially intelligent screenwriting program to figure out this one is really a cautionary tale about nature and man’s interference mucking about in it with pipelines and such.