A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 93 mins.
Kyle Pratt: Jodie Foster / Gene Carson: Peter Sarsgaard / Captain Rich: Sean Bean
/ Julia Pratt: Marlene Lawston / Eric: Matthew Bomer / Mrs. Loud: Mary Gallagher
/ Mr. Loud: Shane Edelman
Silly metaphors aside, the new thriller FLIGHTPLAN achieves a perfect lift-off, suffers from very little – if any – turbulence throughout its first two thirds, but then abruptly and disastrously takes a horrible nose dive and crashes in its final act, never to recover fully. This is all a shame, because by the sixty minute mark I was more than convinced that I was watching one of the more absorbing and intrinsically fascinating thrillers of the year. it’s inventive narrative and emotionally unstable main character, played in one of the best performances of the year by Jodie Foster, truly had me glued to my seat.
Yet, by the time the final thirty minutes rolled by, I felt a level of disbelief overcome me with equal parts stupefied incredulity. FLIGHTPLAN had the makings of a true Hitchcockian masterpiece of mood and dread and instead degenerated into something that could have been narrowly defined as DIE HARD ON A PLANE. In this way, the film is what I like to call "betrayal cinema" – it worked so feverously and patiently to build up and establish itself as something meaningful and intoxicating and instead betrays everything that it was trying to aspire to. In other words, FLIGHTPLAN is two thirds pure Hitchcock and one-third John MaClane. The latter third turned me off…big time.
FLIGHTPLAN seems to be yet another one of those filmmaking enterprises that is great underneath and wants to be bold, unique, and different with the underlying material and instead destroys everything grand it achieves and goes for the easy and tidy denouement. One other film comes painfully to mind when discussing FLIGHTPLAN and that is last year’s THE FORGOTTEN, which also highlighted a very intriguing premise. That film chronicled a woman, played in a thankless performance by Julianne Moore, who is being told that her reality as she knows it does not exist. Yes, that film’s very themes leads you in and it became really hard to not fully immerse yourself in its proceedings. Yet, by the time that film finished and the answers went by on a supernatural and extraterrestrial vein, I sort of clued out. THE FORGOTTEN was a film that wanted to achieve greatness and definitely had a wonderful start and a truly captivating performance by Moore, but those things alone could not save that film from its shaky and unsatisfying conclusion.
FLIGHTPLAN is very much the same type of visceral and emotional experience. Watching it early on there is no doubt that this is a film done with sophistication and tremendous sense of style and mood, not to mention that it contains a few fantastic performances, most notably by Jodie Foster. The director, Robert Schwentke, makes tremendous use of not only his stars, but his assured and confident eye behind the camera as well. He makes virtuoso use of what seems to be large scale sets, state of the art CGI effects, terrifically choreographed camera moves and gloomy cinematography to create a work of memorable atmosphere.
FLIGHTPLAN may be one of the better directed films about people on an airplane and Schwentke knows how to utilize every corner of the aircraft to its fullest advantage. In this essence, the airplane sort of becomes its own character – a silent harbinger of doom that locks all of its occupants inextricably together. Yes, FLIGHTPLAN looks sensational and the screenplay itself tantalizes and teases the audience for a good 60 minutes. Then when the film is just getting really involving it makes a horrendous u-turn to implausibility and preposterous twists. I scratched my head twice at this point – once because I could not believe what I was seeing, and a second time because there is skill and finesse at play here in the making of the film, but no level of self-awareness by any participants about how lame the plot becomes and how intolerably it self-destructs.
Why, oh why, must a good…nay…great film that really wants to be about something and desperately makes attempts to be an airline thriller that separates itself so distinctively commit such a heinous and wrong turn at the end? The first two acts have an intelligence, wit, and value in its characters and dilemmas, but the final act owes more to Steven Segal auctioneers. Okay, I fully realize that the conventions of the genre itself often lead to surprise endings and little twists – some subtle, some not so subtle – but maybe this thriller did not altogether need any. FLIGHTPLAN could have easily segregated itself from other half-baked thrillers and stuck to its guns. The fact that it went the conformist and fairly predictable route is more disappointing than it is agonizing.
I will proceed to discuss the film’s somewhat tricky and, for the most part, well developed plot. The always dependable Foster plays Kyle and, like Moore’s work in THE FORGOTTEN, her performance is a tremendously realized portrayal of the paranoid victim. I have yet to see a more convincing performance in this vein all year. Kyle is a propulsion engineer that, luck and convenience would have it, knows planes inside and out. Her young daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston) and her are traveling from Berlin to New York to take the body of her dead husband home where he belongs. The airplane they fly in takes the terms state-of-the-art to a whole new level. Think a smaller version of the Titanic with wings and you’ll get the idea. Of course, Kyle helped to devise the gigantic plane, which will only prove relatively vital later on.
Kyle and her daughter board the plane first and get a great set of seats in what seems like first class. Soon the airliner fills to capacity and then takes off. Shortly thereafter Kyle drifts off into a deep sleep. A few hours goes by and she wakes up with a problem – her daughter is nowhere to be found. Like every level headed and intelligent mother, Kyle takes a deep breath and takes stock of her situation. She is on board a plane she helped engineer and they are flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Clearly, the daughter will turn up rather easily…right?
Her first modest search of the plane comes up with very little results. Her calmness gives way to anxiety and then later to larger fits of paranoid fear. She soon discovers that she can’t, for the life of her, find little Julia. She soon enlists the aid of the flight attendants as well as the local air marshal on board, Carson (played in another effective performance of quiet and pouty resolve and conviction by Peter Saarsgard). The captain, played by Sean Bean (finally asked to do a role that does not require him to be the lecherous bad guy) also decides to help Kyle. Yet, as time goes by and with the search efforts doubling to include areas that not even a child on her own could get to, none of them can find her.
Then something more sinister and chilling is revealed – no passengers remember seeing the daughter with Kyle when she got on board. Notwithstanding that, but it is discovered that when the plane left Munich there was no record of Julia ever getting on board. To make matters even more dire, Julia’s boarding pass and backpack are also no where to be found and the in-flight manifest has no recorded record of little Julia being on board the flight. To put the final nail in the coffin for Kyle, a message from Munich informs the crew that Julia was killed with her father. Okay, WTF???
Case closed…right? Kyle is obviously subconsciously masking her grief by imagining things, namely that her daughter is actually still alive. Why? Maybe because imagining her alive is less emotionally polarizing and wounding than accepting that she is dead…at least that's what the in-flight psychologist may think. And c’mon, how in the hell does a little girl go missing on an airplane that is 40,000 feet in the air and has no possible place of hiding without being found? Honestly!
Yet, Kyle refuses to accept the notion that she is delusional and schizophrenic. She simply believes her daughter to be alive and on the plane. Was she kidnapped on board? By whom? Was it the strange neighbours that were peering through their window at them the night before the flight? Are they on board? If she was, in fact, kidnapped, how could it have happened without anyone noticing? Surely, someone on board could have been involved in such a dastardly plot, or maybe not? Even more crucial, is Kyle really a concerned mother and her baby girl is actually alive, or is the daughter really dead and she is nuttier than a fruitcake?
On these very levels, FLIGHTPLAN is an engrossing film as it works as a piece of thrilling escapism by plunging the main character into the depths of a claustrophobic and ominous dilemma. It poses questions and begs us for our interpretation and, like any other good mystery, it slyly drops clues and then dismisses those clues until the audiences feels they are being led one way and then are faced with a road block that impedes their analytical and deductive skills. The hysteria of the female protagonist also greatly assists in the film’s overall menacing vibe.
FLIGHTPLAN is a seriously well-acted film. Foster, as stated, plays the crazed, glassed eyed, and ferociously desperate mother with such impeccable energy and charisma. She sells it beautifully at every turn and, much like her role in a similar thriller – PANIC ROOM – she is able to balance her manic façade with an intelligent composure and resourcefulness. However, the film also benefits from the other fine supporting work of Saarsgard, who commands logic and authority with a certain level of disdainful compassion towards Kyle and her plight, as well as Bean, who plays the Captain as a figure that remains a figurehead of calm composure even when a seemingly crazy nut job threatens his flight and passengers. The acting gives the film an air of credibility despite its fantastical plot, and director Schwentke obviously gets great production value out of a relatively sparse setting. It takes skill, I think, to make a film that nearly completely occurs on an airplane interesting, compelling and never boring or dull.
Despite the fact that FLIGHTPLAN is never lethargic or tedious, any logical audience member very early on can make two assumptions. First, the woman is obviously delusional and her daughter is dead. She has been imagining the whole thing. Or, contrastingly, someone on board has kidnapped the daughter and, if you follow the law of economy of characters, it seems very clear cut early on where the story is heading and who is involved in its inevitable outcome. Considering the thought provoking and disturbing nature of the film’s setup, I would have chosen that it remained true to its premise. Unfortunately, the film flounders and goes the desperate road of countless other thrillers until the final twist is revealed and, even though it does not contain a hint of intelligent and mean spirited alien interference like THE FORGOTTEN, FLIGHTPLAN’s conclusion would almost have been more satisfying if Kyle woke up and said, “It was all just a dream.”
FLIGHTPLAN is a film that ultimately comes to a dead stop because of its complete willingness to be as conventional as possible with its conclusion. It is indicative of my definition of a PWP film– or premise without payoff. It’s all kind of sad, in a way, because my expectations were so built up that this film had a proper course plotted for the rest of its narrative and when it got hopelessly lost in a sea of mediocrity, I felt that it lost credibility and became more inane. FLIGHTPLAN is well directed, expertly shot, and wonderfully acted, and has some necessary elements of the great, nail-biting thrillers of the past that combined tense paranoia and old school scare tactics. Unfortunately, the film sort of crashes and burns under its own weight. I was convinced, for sixty minutes, that I was watching one of the best films of 2005. It’s just a waste that, for the last thirty, I was watching one of the year’s most unsatisfactory entertainments.