In recent years, Jodie Foster has elected to make some odd career choices. Barring a supporting part in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, she has only appeared in two films in the last five years: 2002’s Panic Room, in which she played a middle-aged mother cornered in a confined space, and 2005’s Flightplan, where she does more or less the same thing, only on board a plane rather than inside an impenetrable room. It seems more than a little odd that a two-time Oscar winner would content herself with such undemanding roles; then again, other similarly acclaimed stars such as Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson have themselves been coasting in recent years. The difference, of course, is that while the disappointing nature of the likes of De Niro’s recent appearances could be blamed on over-exposure, in Foster’s case the exact opposite is true.
That said, the purpose of this review is not to try to get inside the head of its star or analyse her career post-Silence of the Lambs. Instead, I simply want to discuss Flightplan itself… and resist the urge to call it Panic Plane.
The plot is pretty undemanding. Basically, Kyle Pratt (Foster) and her daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) are heading home to the United State from Germany by plane, bringing with them the body of Kyle’s recently deceased husband. The flight proves to be uneventful until Kyle awakens from a nap to discover that Julia has vanished. Stranger still, no-one on board the flight seems to believe that her daughter ever existed. As Kyle becomes more and more panicked, she turns to increasingly desperate measures to prove to the flight’s sceptical crew and passengers that she is not crazy…
Flightplan is a Jodie Foster vehicle through and through, to the extent that the other participants on either side of the camera scarcely seem to matter. Certainly it’s no use approaching the film from an auteurist perspective, since the production, while slick and professional, is workmanlike in the extreme. The man behind the lens is Robert Schwentke, although you wouldn’t know it to look at it, for it has absolutely nothing in common with the German director’s engaging but flawed serial killer Tattoo, made three years earlier. In this, his first feature length American movie (his directorial debut was in fact a US-based short called Heaven!), Schwentke is most definitely in neutral gear, working for the first time from a script other than his own and abandoning the harsh monochromatic veneer of Tattoo for an infinitely more conventional aesthetic. At least, though, he varies his palette beyond the various grey-blues that directors have, in recent years, seemingly decided are the only suitable colours for a thriller. The only aspect of the production that stands out in any meaningful way is the science fiction inspired set design by Alec Hammond, which has the effect of making the luxury aircraft inside which most of the film is set seem more like a futuristic spaceship than a passenger jet.
As for Foster, she has the role down to pat, but this can hardly be considered a stretch for her. Just like in Panic Room, she spends the bulk of the film on the brink of hysteria, before her weepy character finally grits her teeth and decides that, if no-one else will help her, she’ll jolly well help herself. Until the crucial point at which she decides to take control, the character of Kyle is infuriatingly glassy-eyed, seemingly constantly on the verge of admitting defeat. Although she certainly spends a great deal of time trying to convince the various disbelieving crew members that she did indeed have her daughter with her, the character is written as completely reactive. The first hour or so is therefore rather monotonous, with Kyle coming up against obstacle after obstacle and giving in without much of a fight.
A lot of this, I suspect, stems from the highly logical nature of the script. A child can’t simply disappear from inside a plane mid-flight, so there are only ever two possible answers: either Kyle is completely crazy, or else someone has abducted her and is hiding her somewhere on board. The former would make for a pretty disappointing thriller (although that’s not to say that a talented writer and director couldn’t have pulled it off), so the ending is never in any real doubt. In order to pull off the coup of erasing Julia’s boarding record, the perpetrator would have to be someone with a contact on the inside, which severely limits the number of potential suspects, and means that the whodunit aspect of the plot is fairly limp and almost seems like an afterthought. The twist, if you can even call it that, is therefore almost a non-event. Worse still, the fact that the first two acts are geared around working towards this point means that the final act, while suitably action-packed and significantly more engaging than what followed it, is an anticlimax of the worst possible order.
It’s interesting to compare Flightplan to the approach taken with Red Eye, 2005’s other thriller set on board a plane. In a sense, Flightplan stays much truer to the central gimmick of using its deliberately confined setting to evoke tension, remaining on board the plane for the duration of the movie, whereas, in Red Eye, not only the final act but also the main threat were located on the ground. At the same time, though, Flightplan’s setting is so far removed from reality that, for the most part, the fact that it takes place on board an aircraft ceases to matter: with so much action taking place on different levels, including the engine room and luggage hold, it could probably just as easily have been set in a multi-story building.
Flightplan can basically be summed up in terms of what it is not. It’s not Panic Room, which was a more inventive B-thriller that made better use of its confined setting. Nor is it Red Eye, which offered significantly more plot twists and did a far better job of maintaining a sense of tension throughout. Certainly Jodie Foster is on the ball throughout, and if watching her flex her ample acting muscles sounds like a welcome prospect, then you’ll probably enjoy this unimaginative but competently executed thriller. I’m just amazed that, of all the scripts that must have come her way in the last few years, she chose this.