When an Amacore oil rig in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia proves unproductive, Captain Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and co-pilot A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) are sent to shut down the operation and transport the crew (Amacore executive Ian, rig supervisor Kelly, Rodney, Davis, Liddle, Jeremy, Sammi, Rady, Kyle, Newman, and Dr. Gerber) out of the desert. However, en route to Beijing, a major dust storm disables one engine, forcing them to crash land their C-119 Flying Boxcar in an uncharted area of the Gobi Desert. Kyle falls to his death and the crash kills Dr. Gerber and Newman. Their cargo consists of used parts and tools from the rig, the rig's crew, and Elliot (Giovanni Ribisi), a hitchhiker. When the dust storm ends, it becomes apparent that they are 200 miles off course with only a month's supply of water. Jeremy (Kirk Jones) thinks about walking to get help, but Rady (Kevork Malikyan) explains that July is the hottest month in the Gobi, and that he won't make it.
In the middle of the night, Davis (Jared Padalecki) goes out to urinate without informing anybody, trips, gets lost in a sandstorm, and dies. The group panics after a failed search for him, and Kelly (Miranda Otto) argues with Frank, who says that walking out of the desert would fail and that their only option is to await rescue. The group initially agrees but reconsiders after Elliot, claiming to be an aeronautical engineer, pitches a radical idea: rebuild the wreckage of their C-119 into a functional aircraft. Frank initially refuses, which causes Liddle (Scott Michael Campbell) to wander off on his own in protest. Frank attempts to find him. He comes across a valley littered with debris, cargo from the aircraft, which dropped out when the tail was torn open. Among the debris he discovers the bullet-ridden and stripped body of Kyle. Liddle says he will only go back with him if they build the plane, and Frank agrees.
They struggle for several weeks building the new aircraft, through dust storms, lack of water, and fighting amongst the group. Rady christens it Phoenix after the legendary bird. A problem evolves when a group of smugglers camp nearby; when Ian, A.J., and Rodney attempt to communicate, the bandits kill Rodney (Tony Curran), but they are killed in a short, fierce skirmish when ambushed by Frank. Later, it is revealed that Elliot's aircraft design experience has been restricted to the design of model aircraft, much to the anger of everyone, especially Ian (Hugh Laurie), who threatens to shoot Elliot. However, they eventually are able to construct the new aircraft and take off, barely in time to escape a larger group of bandits seeking revenge for the murdered smugglers.
Through a series of photos, we see what became of the survivors when they made it back to civilization. All have been revitalized by the experience: Frank and A.J. start their own airline (appropriately named Phoenix Aviation), Sammi (Jacob Vargas) and his wife start their own restaurant (Jeremy and Rady are there to celebrate), Liddle is reunited with his wife and kids, Ian becomes a professional golfer, Kelly is working at an ocean oil rig, and Elliot is wearing a flight suit on a Flight International magazine cover with the headline: "NASA's New Hope?"
Co-writer Edward Burns was personally asked by Tom Rothman, who at the time was the president of Fox and had discovered Burns when he bought The Brothers McMullen as Fox Searchlight's first acquisition, to rewrite the film's dialogue. Burns said, "I probably did three drafts of it, and that was it. I never met Scott (Scott Frank, the other credited co-writer)." This is the only film Burns has writing credit on that he did not also direct.
Director John Moore scouted locations in Morocco and Australia before looking at, and quickly choosing, Namibia as the crash site. "Where most of the film takes place, was only a 20 minute-drive from the coastal town of Swakopmund." The Namib Desert location caused problems: cameras and other equipment had to be constantly cleaned of sand, and a "couple of hundred people were employed as 'dune groomers'" so that visual continuity could be maintained.
The set was the site of several mishaps:A ferry sank during transportation of a major set piece across a river, forcing the river bottom salvage of the aircraft fuselage.
Jared Padalecki flipped his vehicle.
Concluding the aerial filming sequences, the flying C-119G N15501 suffered a long gash under the right wing when a film truck backed under it and its driver misjudged the truck's height. A repair crew was flown in, the damaged segment re-skinned and the aircraft flown back across the Atlantic.
On June 3, 2004, camera operator and second unit cinematographer Ciaran Barry was "filming behind a plywood barrier intended to protect his equipment" when an 800-pound "fiberglass model plane propelled down an elevated track, bounced off a sand dune in the Namibian desert and crashed into his hut."
For the latter, in October 2009 a Los Angeles jury awarded Barry $3.95 million in damages for broken legs and neurological damage he received during the accident; $1.3 million of the amount was awarded for lost future income.
A behind-the-scenes documentary, "The Phoenix Diaries," was included on the DVD. In it, director John Moore can be seen screaming at the crew. Fox executives are also not shown in a flattering light. The documentary was not included in the 2006 Blu-ray release.
Four aircraft were used during the film:Fairchild C-119G, N15501 - flying shots. (still flying as of 2007, now part of the Lauridsen Collection at the Buckeye Municipal Airport, February 2010.)
Fairchild C-119F, BuNo.131700 / N3267U - desert wreck.
Fairchild C-119F, BuNo.131691 - Phoenix film prop.
Fairchild C-119F, BuNo.131706 - Phoenix film prop.
A Phoenix that could be taxied but not flown was built for closeups. The Phoenix in flying scenes were done using a radio-controlled model and computer graphics.
Flight of the Phoenix has received generally mixed reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a "rotten" score of 30%, with an average rating of 4.8/10. On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 47 out of 100, indicating "mixed or average reviews." The main criticism for the film was its similarity to the original; John Anderson from Newsday said, "if you've seen the original, there's absolutely no difference in what happens. And very little reason to check it out." Aerofiles, a non-commercial website focusing on North American aviation history, called the film "perhaps the worst remake ever of a classic film." Stephen Holden of The New York Times said the film is a "rickety update of the far superior 1965 movie" that "throws in every cheap trick in the manual to pump up your heartbeat [and] is so manipulative that the involuntary jolts of adrenaline it produces make you feel like a fool." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two stars, writing "I'm not recommending it for those who know the original, but it might work nicely enough for those who have not (seen it)."
The film did receive some praise. Scott Brown from Entertainment Weekly gave the film a B grade, saying "refreshingly, it's actually about action, albeit arbitrary action, and how it defines us and keeps us alive." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times gave the film four stars out of five, calling it "a worthy remake."