FlightplanReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/23/05 00:03:41
After a career filled with risky performances in a series of films that have met with acclaim from both critics and audiences alike, Jodie Foster has more than earned the right to take it easy and only work once in a while. However, her developing pattern of making her increasingly infrequent appearances (not counting her cameos in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” and “A Very Long Engagement”) exclusively in large-scale, utterly anonymous thrillers is a bit disconcerting. Her previous foray into the genre, 2002's “Panic Room,” could be excused because it had some interesting elements and it allowed her to work with the gifted filmmaker David Fincher. However, what, other than the promise of a ginormous paycheck, could have possibly inspired her to sign on for “Flightplan,” a depressingly banal and implausible genre exercise that would hardly pass muster as a made-for-cable exercise starring the sitcom second banana of your choice?In the film, she plays Kyle Pratt, a brilliant Berlin-based airplane engineer who is reeling from the mysterious death of her husband from a fall off their roof. With her adorable young daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston), Kyle boards an enormous, multi-level airliner (one that she helped design) to fly her husband’s body back to New York for burial. After the plane takes off, Kyle falls asleep and when she wakes up a couple of hours later, Julia is missing. Kyle begins searching for her but as thing progress, Julia cannot be found anywhere. Even more mysteriously, no one on board–not even those sitting right next to her–can recall ever having seen Julia on the plane in the first place.
Increasingly frantic, Kyle begins to disrupt the flight to such a degree that she is put under the custody of the flight’s sky marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) while the captain (Sean Bean) orders a search of every nook and cranny. They don’t discover the child but they do come up with some troubling information that suggests that the child may not even exist and that Kyle, traumatized by her recent tragedy, may have suffered from a psychotic break. Of course, we pretty much know going in that no big-budget studio film that starts with Jodie Foster lovingly caring for her daughter is going to end in any other way than with a triumphant mother and child reunion.
Exactly how we get to that part, however, is another story and it results in some of the silliest thriller plotting that has come down the pike in many a moon. Without going into too much detail, I will mention that there is indeed some kind of conspiracy involved and that as elaborate conspiracies go, it leaves a lot to be desired. It is an enormously complicated plan that seems to be foolproof on the surface yet is somehow dependent entirely on knowing that a.) a paranoid and overly anxious mother (whom we have already seen freak out in the airport when her child wandered away for a moment) would immediately move to another row of empty seats and fall asleep the minute that the plane left the ground and that b.) the child in question would be so quiet and still–two traits that aren’t exactly commonly seen in small children on long plane flights–that absolutely no one on board would notice her at all.
At this point, some of you may be wondering why I am slamming “Flightplan” for being an implausible, airplane-based thriller when I gave “Red-Eye” a rave a few weeks ago despite having a plot that was just as ridiculous. True, but the difference between “Red-Eye” and “Flightplan” is that while “Red-Eye” told a nonsensical story, it told that story with a lot of wit and style and, most importantly, it did so at such a breakneck pace that you never had a chance to realize how silly things were getting until long after the end credits rolled, “Flightplan” inexplicably tells its tale in the draggiest and most lugubrious manner possible–even though it only clocks in at fifteen minutes longer than “Red-Eye,” it feels at least an hour longer–and the deadly pacing doesn’t quite distract us from counting up both the mounting implausibilities and the number of other, better films that are blatantly ripped-off by writers Peter A Dowling and Billy Ray. (Although Hitchcock’s classic “The Lady Vanishes” is the most obvious victim, it also pinches from the likes of “The Sixth Sense,” “Bunny Lake is Missing” and Foster’s earlier, better “Panic Room.”)
Another advantage that “Red-Eye” had going for it was a certain single-mindedness of purpose; it stated its basic premise early on and stuck with it throughout and part of the joy was watching all the different spins that the filmmakers managed to come up with despite the confines of the story and the setting. “Flightplan,” on the other hand, seems to realize that its essential premise is weak and so it tries to lead viewers astray for a while by dropping numerous red herrings as well as hints that Foster’s character may be imagining things and that her girl may not actually be there. The trouble is that all of these herrings and hints are deployed with such a lack of subtlety that feel exactly like what they are–ham-fisted bits of manipulation meant distract us from what is going on, not unlike a magician’s assistant in a low-cut dress. The difference is that the only boobs here are the allegedly clever screenwriters and any dopes in the audience who wind up falling for them.
As I said earlier, the one element of “Flightplan” that I couldn’t easily figure out before the end of the second reel was the reason why Jodie Foster decided that it was something worthy of her time and talent. Aside from acting increasingly frazzled as things progress, there isn’t really much of anything to her character and towards the end, she becomes just another pawn of the increasinly implausible proceedings. I would especially like to know what she made of the vaguely offensive subplot in which she inexplicably becomes convinced that several Arabs on board the flight are responsible for the kidnapping–at one point, she claims to have seen one outside her window the night before–and causes them to become the brunt of suspicion and violence amongst some of the passengers themselves. If this was meant to explore and condemn certain post-9/11 travel fears, it doesn’t work because it tries to have it both ways–we get a final shot in which the suspicious American and the oppressed Arab mend fences but it doesn’t quite make up for the red meat of the scene in which Foster punches him out in a rage for no justifiable reason other than to get a rise out of the audience.“Flightplan” may not be the worst film out there but it is certainly one of the most disappointing for the way that it squanders so many promising elements–chiefly a strong cast and sleek production design from Alexander Hammond–on a screenplay that doesn’t deserve them. A lot of thrillers these days start off adequately and then crash and burn at the end. “Flightplan,” on the other hand, never even gets off the ground before its troubles begin and the result is a film slightly less entertaining than spending 99 minutes stuck on the tarmac.
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