The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, September 20, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Flightplan

Originally published 10/8/05
Full review behind the jump


: Robert Schwentke
: Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray
: Brian Grazer
: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Erika Christensen

A movie like
Flightplan should come with a label which reads: “Be Kind, Don’t Rewind.” The cruelest thing you can do to a movie like this is to consider its plot in reverse once you’ve seen it through to the end. At the least it is ludicrously implausible, dependent on rampant coincidence and psychic foreknowledge of how people will behave. At worst it is plainly impossible.

What dignity the film can muster comes from Jodie Foster, always so fiercely alive and immediate on camera, and Sean Bean, who sees the clear down-the-middle path his role must play and sticks to it even as the story flies apart. The rest of the actors flounder in a talky script which keeps head-faking in promising directions, while German director Robert Schwentke (making his English-language debut) keeps the contraption running as smoothly as you could hope but can’t overcome the story’s fatal flaws.

Foster plays Kyle Pratt, an engineer making a sad trip home to America on a next-generation jumbo jet she helped design. Her daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) is with her, quiet and preoccupied. In the cargo hold is a coffin which holds husband and father David (John Benjamin Hickey), who fell to his death from the roof of their Berlin apartment last week. At least, Kyle insists he fell.

But as the plane crosses the Atlantic in the dark Kyle wakes from a nap to find Julia missing. She’s not entirely stable to begin with but does her best to hold panic in and methodically search the airplane. When that turns up nothing, she enlists the aid of the flight attendants, and while they’re helpful at first, when a check of the flight manifest shows no Julia Pratt ever boarded the plane, their attitude towards Kyle shifts noticeably.

Bean plays the pilot – who takes Kyle’s plight seriously and tries to keep things calm and according to protocol, putting her in the charge of abrasive Air Marshall Carson (Peter Sarsgaard). But Julia remains unfound. And Kyle’s increasing hysteria sends tension throughout the plane until a new bombshell forces her to face the possible reasons why none of the passengers or crew can remember seeing her daughter.

When we’re stuck on the plane and can watch passengers react in their own way to the evolving situation, Flightplan has some intrigue. It plugs into Kyle’s paranoia – are those two Arab men (Michael Irby, Assaf Cohen) the ones who seemed to be staring into her window last night? Some passengers seem willing to think so and the threat of violence hangs in the air. It also plugs into Kyle’s awareness of her surroundings – this is not a lost mother waiting to be helped but a capable, rational woman suffering a great trauma who knows that she must fight the growing perception that she’s insane, even if it might be true. Foster is playing in much the same range as she did in Panic Room and again shows an uncanny ability to find the hidden dynamics within a genre piece like this.

And I single out Bean because as the truly harebrained nature of the plot begins to reveal itself he doesn’t bend to it. While other characters behave in deliberately odd or suspicious ways, he consistently depicts a professional man who is not without concern but has a whole plane full of people he is responsible for besides Kyle. So no matter where his character ends up in the final analysis, his conviction is the most quietly compelling along the way.

The plane is a mammoth, two-level piece of work, and since the action spreads throughout the lounge, the flight deck, the cargo hold, the restrooms, the avionics chamber and all sorts of other nooks and crannies, director Schwentke has a lot of space to keep the movie from becoming visually stagnant. That Foster’s character has such detailed knowledge of the plane comes in handy in several ways. By comparison with this year’s other woman-in-jeopardy-on-a-plane thriller Red Eye, Schwentke has fewer limitations than Wes Craven had with that piece’s plane sections.

This movie suffers more, then, since Craven’s filmmaking abilities elevated that preposterous story into an effective thrill ride, while Schwentke can only keep things interesting moment by moment. All his clever photographic angles aside – and there are many that don’t call too much attention to themselves – inevitably, you stop to think about what you’re seeing, what the movie is proposing to you. And then the jig’s up.


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