Flightplan

Flightplan

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Long-haul flights are an uncomfortable business. You sit for hours in a small seat, having to put up with poor in-flight entertainment, the unpredictable, often annoying behaviour of complete strangers around you and a constant low-level anxiety that comes from being trapped midair in a glorified tube. And after 9/11, there are other fears besides. So the cabin fever environs of an airplane, where claustrophobia and paranoia are never more than an aisle away, make the perfect setting for a tense psychological thriller.

Wes Craven was the first this year to exploit airborne unease in Red Eye, but the results, while slickly presented, were bland and only vaguely satisfying, much like airline food. With Flightplan, German director Robert Schwentke (best known for the grisly Tattoo) proves far more adept at capturing the pressure cooker atmosphere of a commercial airliner and, in his Hollywood debut, makes a crossing to America that is far less bumpy than his protagonist's.

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Still in emotional freefall from the recent death in Germany of her husband, propulsion engineer Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) decides to return home to the US with her equally fragile six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston). Some three hours into the flight, Kyle awakes to find Julia missing. After searching all the public areas of the new super-sized jumbo jet, Kyle's initial worry turns to out-and-out panic and soon the plane's stewardesses (Kate Beahan, Erika Christensen), captain (Sean Bean) and even a concerned Air Marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) are struggling to calm the frantic mother down.

The plane's passenger manifest has no record of Julia, no one on board can recall ever seeing the little girl and the word from the ground is that she died along with her father, which leaves the distraught widow questioning her own sanity, as she finds herself launching wild accusations of conspiracy and terrorism at her fellow passengers (especially the Arab ones). Still, confronted with the loss of her husband, her daughter and quite possibly her mind, Kyle has nothing left to lose and so decides to do everything within her power to discover what (besides the plane) is up.

Peter Dowling's script for Flightplan had been in development long before 2001, but once passenger jets were used as missiles against New York's Twin Towers, the way the world viewed air travel changed irrevocably and the screenplay has been revised accordingly to accommodate a new knee-jerk nervousness about Muslim fliers and the greater prominence of armed Air Marshals. At the same time Billy Ray was called in to make another, more thorough change to Dowling's script, and so Kyle Pratt was changed from a traditional male hero into a far spikier female character, although the name remained the same.

The effect of this alteration is twofold. Firstly it broadens out an otherwise conventional thriller into an exploration of loss, maternity and madness - not unlike last year's The Forgotten, only with a far less unbalanced denouement. Secondly, and more importantly, the change brought the inestimable talents of Foster to the project. For even if she is well supported by Bean (combining authority with solicitude) and Sarsgaard (believably poker-faced as the sceptical Carson), this is Foster's film from start to finish, and to a blend of resourcefulness and vulnerability already familiar from her role in Panic Room, she adds a new quality of hysterical neurosis that will leave viewers feeling as disoriented and confused as her character.

Even if the "plan" seems less plausible once the film is over than it does in the cinema (and to say any more would be to give too much away), Flightplan is a white-knuckle ride into the anxieties and terrors of the new millennium - and beyond.

Fasten your seatbelts.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2005
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Has Jodie lost her mind, or her daughter, on the long haul flight?
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Read more Flightplan reviews:

Chris ***
The Exile *

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If you like this, try:

The Forgotten
Red Eye