By Owen Gleiberman
October 15, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The disaster movies of the 1970s were overwrought exploitation films — schlock on a grand scale. With their hordes of has-been actors scrambling out of waterlogged luxury liners and blazing buildings, these movies were mostly concerned with turning catastrophe into bombastic physical spectacle. But what about the emotions of disaster? What might it actually feel like to be seated on an airplane and, in the space of one cataclysmic downward lurch, to experience a dread you never imagined, the end of your existence suddenly looming before you?

That’s the question that haunts Peter Weir’s Fearless (R), an emotionally eerie new drama that tells the story of two plane-crash survivors. From its dreamily unsettling opening sequence, in which Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) emerges, dazed, from a smoke-enshrouded forest of cornstalks, the wreckage of a jetliner spread out in surreal shards behind him, it’s clear that this is no TV movie of the week. Weir, working from a script by Rafael Yglesias (based on his 1993 novel), is out to capture the experience of human trauma in all its wrenching terror and strangeness.

Max, a San Francisco architect, is on a business trip to Houston when the plane’s hydraulic system fails. After an attempt to make it to a small airport, the plane crash-lands in a cornfield, and Max is able to lead several survivors out of the fiery wreckage. At least one of the passengers, though, has to be dragged out screaming: Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), a working-class Hispanic housewife whose child has been killed.

Back in San Francisco, Max is reunited with his ballet-teacher wife (Isabella Rossellini) and young son. The media brand him a hero, and an eager lawyer (Tom Hulce) tries to get him to embellish the circumstances of the crash for maximum financial gain. But Max wants none of this. He doesn’t want to lie anymore—about anything. He doesn’t think he’s a hero. He isn’t even sure he exists.

What’s happened? During the plane’s queasy descent (which is shown, at charged intervals, in flashbacks), Max gazes out the window and confronts, for the first time, the prospect of his own death. And what he realizes is that he isn’t afraid: He’s willing to die. Now, having survived, he is trapped in a state of numb transcendence — the sensation that life means nothing (since he was so ready to leave it behind) coupled with the feeling that his own life means more than anyone else’s (since he has succeeded in cheating death). The reality is that Max has been frozen. Yelling up at God in triumph, dancing on the ledge of an office building, he feels infused with power because he’s reliving that one, fearless moment over and over. Is Max crazy or in a state of grace? A monomaniac or a saint? Caught in denial or pushed to a new, mystical level of acceptance?

The wonder of Jeff Bridges’ performance is that he convinces us Max is all these things at once. Bridges has always been one of our most romantically downbeat actors; beneath his beach-boy facade, his characters have melancholy depths they’re too gentle to reveal. Now, in middle age, that same canny reticence — it’s at once his most attractive quality and the one that has kept him from being a bigger star — takes on an enigmatic grandeur. Bridges keeps us on edge even in the quietest scenes of this movie. He manages the feat of seeming passionately possessed yet disconnected from himself — in Heaven and Hell at the same time. The strength of Fearless is that, through Bridges’ performance, the film dares to imagine Max’s tormented delirium as a genuine religious state.

After several months, Max and Carla are the only two of the crash survivors who haven’t been able to move beyond their experience. As a therapeutic gesture, the airline psychiatrist (John Turturro) brings the two of them together, and their relationship becomes the focal point of the movie. Carla, a devout Catholic, is drowning in guilt over her lost toddler. In a sense, both she and Max are still living on that plane. The two enter into a kind of love affair of the spirit, as if they were aliens who’d discovered each other on the same foreign planet. Weir, who has often shown a mystical bent (The Last Wave, The Year of Living Dangerously), avoids the standard formula pitfalls—the warm and gushy I’m-learning-how-to-live-again montages — that usually convert subjects like this into movies like Awakenings. Yet if Bridges and Perez have touching moments together, their scenes don’t have a lot of momentum. Despite Perez’s gentle, compelling performance, Carla remains an underimagined character. At times, it’s as if the movie were saying that men have profound spiritual crises while women are just vessels of sorrow.

The plane’s turbulent descent and crash is surely the most frightening ever filmed. In the rawness and detail — the sheer intimacy — of its terror, it dwarfs even the plane crash in Alive! By the end, however, it has become more than an existential tragedy. In their audacious attempt to investigate the emotions of crash survivors, the filmmakers inflate Fearless into something both awesome and corny, a vision of blissed-out millenial yearning. No doubt, there’ll be many more such visions in the next 10 years. We can only hope, though, that as Hollywood discovers the end of the century, the Apocalypse doesn’t become a fancy excuse for making smiley-faced disaster movies. B

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