Film Review: FlightPlan

Posted: Sep 28, 2005 12:01 AM

You know that feeling of being cramped in coach on a full plane during a long flight—the passengers around you seem to have cultivated every aggravating tic known to man for the express purpose of driving you out of your wits, and the warm, claustrophobic air leaves you feeling feverish and chilled at the same time? If you enjoy that experience and would like to pay good money for it without going anywhere, have I got a movie for you!

In Flightplan, Jodie Foster plays Kyle Pratt, a mother and aeronautics engineer who is taking her husband and her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) home to New York—Julia in the airplane seat next to her, her husband in the cargo hold in a casket. Kyle is already in a fragile state having just lost her husband to what may or may not have been a suicide swan-dive off their Berlin apartment building. However, she manages to hold herself together for Julia’s sake. But when somewhere around 40,000 feet Kyle awakens from a catnap to find that her daughter has disappeared, her tenuous control over her impulses crumble.

Wasting barely a moment on casual searching, Kyle flies into full-scale ransacking mode, banging on the captain’s door and insisting that someone has kidnapped her daughter. Initially, the crew reacts sympathetically, but as evidence surfaces that Julia was never on the plane, Kyle finds she must battle both flight attendants and a soft-spoken air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) to find her.

From the beginning, Flightplan relies too heavily on the expectation that we will identify with Foster’s character regardless of her hysteria. Before Julia ever vanishes, Kyle comes across as paranoid and skittish to such a degree that even her husband’s death can’t explain it. At first, the script hints that some sinister history might exist to justify Kyle’s overreaction. But soon enough it becomes clear that this is not the case and her over-the-top anxiety serves no other purpose than to irritate her fellow passengers and, eventually, the audience.

As Foster races up and down the aisles making racist accusations, screaming at the crew, and tinkering with the plane’s electrical wiring, we start to feel much more sympathy for the people forced to endure her behavior than for her plight. Perhaps this was director Robert Schwentke’s intent as a way to ramp up the tension. It doesn’t work. Instead, you can’t help thinking that even if her little girl is missing, you still wish she’d sit down, shut up, and let the professionals handle it.

Maybe if Foster hadn’t pulled this act a few times before, it would be less grating. But the close-ups on her face here (knitted brow betraying confused, searing anxiety) are identical to the close-ups we saw in Silence of the Lambs, Contact, and The Panic Room. Ditto for her strained, whispery-voiced delivery. It’s not a bad performance, its just the same one audiences have seen her give many times in much more engaging material.

However, if Foster was the predictable choice for this project, the rest of the casting is completely incomprehensible. Sarsgaard has turned in great work in films like Shattered Glass, and in the right part he can add a sense of individuality to a flagging lineup. But his slow, sleepy style feels inappropriate for an air marshal in the wake of 9/11. And unless Touchstone Pictures just likes wasting money, there was no reason for them to hire a rising starlet like Erika Christensen for an incidental, 5-minute role that an extra could have filled just as well. Using her for such an insignificant part ends up being a distraction rather than a bonus.

Still, acting alone isn’t responsible for grounding Flightplan—it has plot holes big enough to fly a jumbo jet through that do that. Without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say that the bad guys rely on an awful lot of uncontrollable circumstances falling their way (like perfect, silent behavior from a six-year-old) to carry out their nefarious plot. Even worse, the paint-by-numbers plot holes come complete with fake-out throwaway clues that aren’t fooling anyone.

It may be flying under the cover of an A-list cast, but Flightplan is just another B-rate thriller.