Flightplan (United States, 2005)
Flightplan is the latest motion picture to take an intriguing premise and flush it into the septic tank. Despite the participation of selective, talented actress Jodie Foster and a screenplay that borrows heavily from The Lady Vanishes, Flightplan can't avoid falling apart during its final half-hour. Instead of an intelligent, inventive finale, we are stuck with the same approach employed by every half-baked thriller. The absurd conclusion would be laughable if it wasn't such a disappointment. And anyone mentioning the words "surprise twist" in association with this film is betraying an ignorance of the conventions of the genre.
Foster plays Kyle, a propulsion engineer who, with her young daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), in tow, is traveling from Berlin to New York to bury her dead husband. Their airplane is a state-of-the-art skyliner. Kyle knows it well, since she helped design it. Shortly after takeoff, she drifts into a deep sleep. When she awakens three hours later, with the plane over the Atlantic Ocean, Julia is missing. Kyle begins searching - calmly at first, then with increasing anxiety when she can't find her daughter. She enlists the aid of a sky martial, Carson (Peter Saarsgard), several members of the flight crew, and the captain (Sean Bean) - all to no avail. No one remembers seeing Julia, and there is a growing suspicion that the girl's presence on the flight is a figure of the mother's imagination.
That's the interesting part of Flightplan. It's what they show in the previews and commercials to get you into a theater. Kyle, unhinged by the loss of her daughter, races up and down aisles, escapes through a ceiling tile in the bathroom, and tries to break into the cockpit. What the film keeps hidden are the events that occur during the awful final act, when logic is thrown out the hatch. Once you start putting the pieces together, it's easy to see where the movie is going. We have seen this kind of story before, although admittedly not on an airplane. By comparison, Red Eye (also about terror at 30,000 feet) was a masterpiece of plotting.
Most thrillers diverge from reality at some point. That's when the skill of the director comes into play. One could argue, for example, that Die Hard is no less preposterous than Flightplan. But John McTiernan, who helmed the Bruce Willis action movie, undersood what it takes to keep the audience's disbelief suspended. The same is not true of Flightplan's director, Robert Schwentke. The moment plot elements start going over the top, he loses the audience. Alfred Hitchcock used the term "refrigerator movie" to describe a film with absurd plot twists that are recognized by a viewer only in retrospect - later in the evening, while getting a late-night snack out of the refrigerator. Unfortunately, with Flightplan, the holes become apparent as soon as they develop. Instead of being plugged, they grow larger and more obvious.
At least there's some solid acting. Foster is convincing as the desperate mother, and she plays some scenes so close to the edge that we wonder if Kyle is delusional. Sean Bean, who often plays villains, is effective as the captain with a dilemma to resolve. Next time I fly, I want a captain with this kind of in-control presence. Peter Sarsgaard, one of today's better young character actors, is wasted in the thankless role of the air marshal. For much of the film, all he does is shadow Foster and look sulky.
Flightplan has a strong Hitchcock connection. In particular, it borrows from The Lady Vanishes. The premise is similar, but that's not where the pilfering stops. Screenwriters Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray also use the unwitting "message on the window" and the hysteria of the female protagonist. It's when Flightplan goes beyond Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes that it runs into problems. The "new" material added to the film isn't as compelling as the "updated" stuff. Too facilitate the conventional ending, many intriguing possibilities are left unexplored. The trajectory of Flightplan resembles that of a plane on a troubled flight: at the beginning, it soars, then it levels off before going into a tailspin from which it never recovers.
Flightplan (United States, 2005)
Cast: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Erika Christensen, Marlene Lawston
Screenplay: Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray
Cinematography: Florian Ballhaus
Music: James Horner
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures