Robert Zemeckis returns to live action filmmaking for the first time in a decade with Flight, a sometimes-thrilling account of an alcoholic airline pilot and one life-changing event. The problem here is the film can’t help but get in its own way at nearly every turn, despite a terrific performance from Denzel Washington and some exhilarating moments inside the cockpit.

Highly touted as Zemeckis’ return to live action filmmaking, Flight proves he’s still more than capable behind the camera, as there are moments, particularly early on in the film, that show true cinematic ingenuity, thanks in large part to some slick work from long time collaborator, cinematographer Don Burgess. In fact, the opening sequences are highly riveting and offer a promising beginning, as we follow the flight and piloting of Whip Whitaker, played superbly by Denzel Washington.

Much will be made about the flight sequence in the opening portion of the film, and for good reason. Zemeckis crafts an immensely thrilling, edge-of-your-seat opening act that largely takes place inside the cockpit, as we see a new perspective of flying; picture The Aviator meets commercial airline travel. Yet this is the first instance of Flight sabotaging itself, as the filmmakers choose to intersperse this flying sequence with that of a mysterious heroine addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly).

Flight

Despite these sequences with Nicole somewhat taking the wind out of the film’s sails early on, the first act is promising nevertheless, as the intense events aboard the plane outweigh the film’s missteps. Yet the issues don’t stop there, as the second act is a complete mess; Flight completely shifts gears from the thrilling, devastating events of the first act. Think of it as if Nicole’s story wins out – as she coincidentally does play a surprisingly large role when she befriends Whitaker in a hospital after overdosing on heroine.

Zemeckis and writer John Gatins do manage to instill a few moments of brilliance into the second act, particularly with a brief scene in the hospital between Whitaker, Nicole, and a cancer patient, played brilliantly by James Badge Dale. Yet this sequence ends up as little more than a vignette, while a budding relationship between Nicole and Whitaker surfaces and goes nowhere. The second act does introduce several supporting talents, such as Don Cheadle as an attorney for Whitaker, Bruce Greenwood as a pilot’s union representative, and John Goodman as Whitaker’s friend and all-around wacko. These talents go largely wasted however, as they become bit players in a story that revolves into focusing on Whitaker’s ghosts and eventually, just how unlikeable Whitaker is as a character.

Flight

This could perhaps serve a purpose as some sort of redemption story, which would make sense considering the prominence of Nicole as a character, but instead Flight seems only keen on reinforcing Whitaker’s struggles. While Washington is as convincing as ever, it’s tough to have a central character who disappoints at every turn, well into the third act. Stories in addiction are fine, but it doesn’t fit here nor is it treated with competence.

Flight has flashes of brilliance; an impressive opening act, a solid-as-ever performance from Denzel Washington, a fantastic soundtrack featuring the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it is all for naught. The real travesty here is Flight‘s clear potential, as there is talent to spare and an opening act so strong that when what comes is so uneven and pointless, the end result is disappointment.

Grade: C

Rated: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence)

Flight opens in theaters on November 2, 2012.