SINCE 2004, Robert Zemeckis has been stumbling through the uncanny valley, cranking out soulless, dead-eyed creepshows: The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol. Flight is his return to live action, and its first 20 minutes or so serve as a remarkable reminder of how good Zemeckis can be: This is the guy who made Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Cast Away and Forrest Gump and a few other things too, and he knows his shit. Flight's opening is dominated by a bone-rattlingly visceral plane crash: The commercial flight pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) takes off in terrifyingly bad weather, and then, once Whitaker's pushed through the chop, a mechanical failure sends the plane—and its 102 passengers—hurtling nose-first to the ground. Whitaker's quick thinking and audacious maneuvers are matched only by Zemeckis' deft, sadistic control—he seems intent on making everyone who sees Flight never want to fly again.

Against all odds, Whitaker lands the plane, saving 96 of those onboard. His feat is made all the more impressive by the fact that the whole time he was flying, his blood alcohol content was a .24—and that's not even taking into account all the coke and weed in his system.

This is a fantastic beginning to a movie. For a little while, Flight seems like it's going to be really good! But surprise! Flight isn't about Whitaker's feat, nor is it about the chaotic aftermath. No, Flight is about how Whitaker is a shitfaced alcoholic, and as soon as his plane crashes, so does Zemeckis' movie. A tone-deaf script by John Gatins follows Whitaker as he drinks, drinks, and drinks some more, while all the skill Zemeckis shows in the film's opening is traded in for lazy cinematic shorthand: melodramatic thunderclaps, a single tear rolling down a trembling cheek, a whole lot of talk about "god's will."

Flight is a movie about incredibly unlikeable people, and selfish asshole Whitaker is chief among them. Spending 138 minutes with him is just like spending 138 minutes with an actual drunk: tiresome, obnoxious, repetitive, and phenomenally unpleasant. Not even Don Cheadle (he's Whitaker's shady lawyer), John Goodman (he's technically Whitaker's dealer, but he's really just reprising his role as Walter from The Big Lebowski), and a million Rolling Stones songs on the soundtrack can save this thing. Flight is nothing more than a clumsy, preachy, feature-length infomercial for AA—but damn, it sure does open with a hell of a plane crash.