by Mel Valentin
A taut, claustrophobic, suspense thriller set aboard an international flight (the second in two months, preceded by Wes Craven’s "Red Eye," clearly indicating that the post-9-11 studio-imposed restriction against setting thrillers aboard airplanes has come and gone), "Flightplan" marks the Hollywood debut of German-born Robert Schwentke, whose two previous films were modestly budgeted independent efforts made in his native Germany ("The Family Jewels," "Tattoo"). More importantly, at least for American audiences is the return of two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster to a leading role in a feature film (her first in several years), here as a grief-stricken widow and mother whose greatest fear, the disappearance of her young daughter, occurs during an international flight from Berlin to New York.As Flightplan opens in an austere, wintry, semi-isolated Berlin, Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster), a propulsion engineer (she designs airplane engines), newly widowed has decided to return to the United States with her six-year old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), to bury her husband and restart her life. The first to board the airplane, a state-of-the-art, double-decker (fictional) E-474 airplane, Kyle and her daughter settle into an empty aisle, hoping to sleep through most of the transatlantic flight. Instead, Kyle awakens to discover Julia missing, with passengers and crew first suspicious of her claims (no one saw Kyle board the airplane with her daughter, nor see Julia in her seat), and then fearful as Kyle’s increasingly desperate behavior turns the other passengers against her. Kyle eventually demands a systematic search of the entire airplane, including the cargo hold and the avionics room (the avionics room houses the sophisticated hardware and software that keeps the E-474 in the air). Oddly, Julia’s name doesn’t appear on the flight manifest and Julia’s boarding pass has disappeared, leaving Kyle with little tangible evidence of her daughter’s existence and a flight crew increasingly dubious of her claims.
"Highly implausible, but entertaining nonetheless."
The flight crew does offer some help (or the appearance of help), but prove to be obstacles to Kyle’s anxious, frantic search. Kyle’s sometimes antagonists include a semi-sympathetic, rumpled air marshal, Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), Captain Rich (Sean Bean), caught in the middle between helping Kyle and ensuring the safety of the passengers and crew, and two flight attendants, Fiona (Erica Christensen) and Stephanie (Kate Beahan) who circle around Kyle, offering platitudes and shows of sympathy. For good (or actually offensive) measure, the screenplay throws in two other potential antagonists, swarthy, accented Arabs (they claim to be businessmen). Some are red herrings, of course, but one, possibly more are probably involved in the kidnapping plot (the purpose behind the plot is left unclear until late in the film).
Flightplan suffers from one major and several minor flaws. Most importantly, the storyline depends a series of interconnected implausibilities, which may be credible individually, but when linked, fail the suspension-of-disbelief test. Without going into particulars, once the details of the kidnapping plot and its purpose are made known, too much rests on Kyle acted in a highly limited manner (not to mention, a storyline that hinges all too obviously on no one seeing Julia board the airplane). While the multiple implausibilities weaken Flightplan’s overall entertainment value, some viewers will find the suggestion that the Arab passengers are terrorists in disguise far more offensive and egregious (Kyle immediately suspects them of participating in the kidnapping plot). Obviously, the screenwriters, Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray understand that the success of a thriller/mystery plot depends on misdirection, shifting audience sympathies and doubts from one potential suspect to another, but that’s hardly an excuse for using Arab characters to play on the prejudices and stereotypes of Western audiences. Less importantly, Schwentke holds the last scene far too long, bluntly manipulating audience emotions, with secondary characters offering condolences or attempting to make amends with Kyle after her ordeal.
Readers and critics may use the word “Hitchcockian” to describe Flightplan, due to the premise and the thriller aspects of the storyline. In fact, Flightplan borrows the premise from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes set aboard an intercontinental train at the height of pre-war tensions with Germany. It was his last British film before departing for Hollywood, where his first directorial effort, Rebecca, garnered critical approval and commercial success (and Academy Award nominations). Flightplan even goes as far as borrowing a key plot device involving frosted window glass just as the heroine’s doubts about the existence of the vanished lady of the title are about to turn into a certainty that she doesn’t, in fact, exist (except as a figment of her imagination). There’s even the key moment when the hidden antagonist is revealed to the audience out of the heroine’s sight or hearing, with the onscreen characters playing catch up for the remainder of the film (it’s a technique used to ratchet up tension and audience identification with characters in obvious danger, since the characters implicitly trust the antagonist).Comparisons aside, "Flightplan" succeeds primarily for two reasons, Schwentke’s polished, tight direction, which never substitutes flashy visuals or cutting where simpler, more economical visual composition, camera movement or traditional editing suffice and, of course, Jodie Foster handling the lead role. The words “fiercely intelligent” are often used in describing Foster and her uncompromising performance style. Those words apply equally to her performance in "Flightplan." While Foster may not be the warmest of actresses (she always seems to keep some part of herself in reserve), the role of Kyle Pratt complements Foster’s talents perfectly, allowing her to naturalistically express a wide range of emotions and feelings, from barely contained, numbed grief to intense, focused determination to save her daughter, whatever the costs. In effect, Foster becomes a surprisingly effective, convincing action heroine everyone can root for (in the mold of Sigourney Weaver’s character in "Aliens" or Foster’s similar role in "Panic Room").
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13113&reviewer=402
originally posted: 12/24/05 06:21:34