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Sundance’s ‘Charlie Victor Romeo’: A 3D Disaster Movie Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before

By: Matt Patches

charlie victor romeo sundance review

In 2012, Flight director Robert Zemeckis forced our jaws to the floor with the keystone sequence of his Denzel Washington-led addiction drama. As coked-up pilot Whip Whitaker, Washington brought urgency and intensity to an imminent plane crash. A malfunction forces Whitaker to down the plane — which he first must fly upside down to stabilize it. With shakey camera work, high production value, and special effects that recreate the harrowing scene, Zemeckis trumped his own plane crash work in Cast Away to craft one of the most terrifying sequences of the year.

But it has nothing on the Sundance premiere, Charlie Victor Romeo.

A radical 3D experiment by directors Robert Berger and Karlyn Michelson, Charlie Victor Romeo one ups Hollywood’s adrenaline-infused plane crashes with a stripped down presentation that finds tension in the real life reactions of plane crews. Using black box recordings of six jet crashes as their script, Berger and Michelson film actors on a bare bones, black box set replaying the events as they happen in real time. Through camera placement, editing, and sound design, the duo thrust us into the cabin to experience the crew’s swift responses, the whirlwind of confusion, and every drip of sweat that rolls down their foreheads as they attempt to save the lives of their passengers.

Charlie Victor Romeo‘s clinical style — presenting the crashes in slide form with informative plane diagrams, accident reports, and fatality counts inbetween the reenactments — adds to gravity of the situations. Even with a separation from realism, the raw dialogue and facts-first approach humanizes the actors more than an A-list star ever could. That’s a testament to the performers enlisted by Berger and Michelson — you never once question their legitimacy as they sound off with technical airplane lingo or bark orders at the other crew members.

Not “entertainment” in its fluffiest definition, Berger and Michelson’s scene choices are deeply engrossing, each one finding new insight into the deeply disturbing and rare incident of a plane crash. One sequence may last a few minutes (oh, how quickly a bird can take down an entire jet), beginning with casual banter and escalating in a matter of seconds. Others take longer to evolve; in one of the final depictions, a plane loses the ability to turn left as the rest of the mechanics begins to pitter out. Sound escalates the fear, a plane’s warning buzzer sounds loud and out of nowhere for the various crews. For the audience, it’s a death bell.

Shooting and viewing Charlie Victor Romeo in 3D adds little to the experience, with the stage too shallow to capture real depth. If it adds anything, it’s making the actors pop against backgrounds, an added layer of realism to an already too-true-for-comfort scenario. That’s the opposite of the big budget Hollywood plane crashes, that attempt to enamor us with spectacle. In Charlie Victor Romeo, the people come first — an asset when examining tragedy.