“Charlie Victor Romeo” defies one convention after another: A thriller with arthouse bona fides, minimalist in design but shot in 3D, it brings the original 1999 play — based on black-box cockpit recordings recovered from air disasters — to the screen in a fashion that’s stagebound yet otherworldy. Commercial prospects — including screenings aboard airplanes — are profoundly limited, but festival and speciality exposure should be healthy, driven by a novel premise and the film’s surefire appeal to the morbidly curious.
Robert Berger, who co-wrote the play (and co-founded New York’s Collective: Unconscious performance space, where the work premiered), directs with Karlyn Michelson, rotating their small cast through the roles of pilots, co-pilots and flight attendants, all of whom are faced with impending disaster midair. Not all the flights are complete catastrophes, but as the details come into focus — each episode was included for a reason, one keeps reminding oneself — they create a visceral sense of apprehension, as well as an emotional investment in the fate of the crew (passengers are never seen).
Hopes are dashed on a regular basis, although a few moments are mined for a very dark kind of comedy. The introduction to the film consists of a voice giving the standard pre-flight safety instructions. During one of the doomed flights, the co-pilot begins reading the manual to figure out what’s wrong, which isn’t really funny, except when one thinks about the unwitting passengers sitting beyond the cabin door.
The sparsely designed cockpit remains virtually the same from chapter to chapter. It’s the dialogue and Jamie Mereness’ sound design that are the real stars of the movie, although the actors interpret the transcripts (“Charlie Victor Romeo” stands for “cockpit voice recorder”) with convincing terror and urgency.
The characters are defined less by names or personal histories than by the parts they’re playing in a very brief encounter with impending mortality. But the screenwriter/playwrights have processed the characters’ last words in ways that imbue them with as much humanity as possible: During one flight, the exchanges between pilot and flight attendant are given a flirtatious sexual tension, in a scene that might well have been taken in another way entirely.
Production values are a curious mix. The sound — a blend of ambient airplane roar and dialogue — calls for precise balance, and Mereness and sound recorder Kevin Reilly have walked a tightrope in keeping the aural elements in equilibrium. The 3D photography brings an exceptional clarity to the film, but doesn’t in the end seem like a factor critical to the story.