Jodie Foster must have some kind of nightmares. She played a rape victim in "The Accused," a woman under siege in "Panic Room," and now a woman whose daughter disappears on a transatlantic flight . . . and is told by the flight staff that the girl was never on board, and may, in fact, never have existed.
But that's the unlikely premise of "Flightplan," a pretty effective thriller that serves as a showcase for Foster's considerable talents--especially her ability to play a woman who's emotionally troubled, rattled, and paranoid. Foster is in her element as Kyle Pratt, a jet-propulsion engineer based in Berlin who's taking her daughter and her husband's coffin back to New York. Pratt is trying hard to keep it together after being told her husband leapt to his death. It gets worse. On a double-decker Aalto E-474 jumbo jet (whose engines she coincidentally helped design) her six-year-old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston) disappears while mom falls asleep three hours into the flight. She asks passengers and flight attendants about the girl, but it turns out that no one has seen her. In fact, no one saw the girl at all, and flight attendants eventually tell her that the girl doesn't even show up on their flight register, and there's no record of her having boarded the plane in Berlin.
And so the stage is set for a psychological thriller. Was there a little girl, or is she a delusion of a grief-stricken woman? The story, as it turns out, is based on a real incident. Apparently a businessman's son disappeared on an international flight. Originally, the screenplay involved terrorists hijacking the plane and a male protagonist, but director Robert Schwentke says on an excellent commentary track that they rewrote the script when Foster came onboard and realized that there were things they could do with a woman in the same situation that they couldn't with a man. As in "Panic Room," Foster once again finds herself in a confined space. But this time, the people who are threatening her are right inside that fuselage with her.
Schwentke really sets up this thriller well by shooting scenes from Kyle's grief-stricken point of view. Because her mental state is called into question, we end up wondering, as the flight attendants do, what is real and what is all in a disturbed woman's mind. Because we see things from Kyle's point of view we also see how she could become suspicious of crew members and passengers. There's even a credible balancing act that Schwentke pulls off when it comes to a possible protagonist. Who's really on Kyle's side? Is it the captain of the plane (Sean Bean), or an air marshal named Carson (Peter Sarsgaard). Just as it happened in "Panic Room," there's a rhythm of heavy-breathing and confinement that alternates with periods of rapid camera movement and frantic action. So much depends on pacing and character development in a film like this, but everything comes together nicely. The result is a taut little thriller that holds your attention until the surprising end.
Of course, the real suspect of any thriller is usually the plot itself, if you question the logic too much. You can't be overly scrutinous about "Flightplan" or you'll ruin the ride. Just go along with the premise and don't sweat the small stuff. Ignore, for example, unanswered questions about two Arabic men who face post-9/11 scrutiny, and just deal with Kyle turning into a one-person wrecking crew near the end. After all, if Harrison Ford can do it in "Air Force One," why not a woman? If someone told you your daughter never existed, you'd want to take apart the plane, too.
A five-part "making of" feature covers the writing, directing, casting, post-production, and visual effects, with Schwentke and others telling how they got a behind-the-scenes tour of a 747 at Los Angeles International. On "Designing the Aalto E-474" we get even more details about how this huge and complicated set was built. At LAX they saw things like the attic, the holds, and the nose cone of the 747, and then they "expanded it exponentially" to create a jet-set that looks so huge and intricate that it could pass for a ||Star Wars|m|1697|| spaceship. But we also marvel at how tight and constrictive the set was. Anyone who thinks acting is easy needs to watch these features, which show Foster managing to hold her concentration even as men with cameras spin around her on dolly tracks while she's delivering her monologues. The audio commentary by Schwentke isn't as good, because it covers many of the same bases, but it's still worth a listen. So is the DTS soundtrack option. It puts the rumble in this thriller.
"Flightplan" has a lot of soft background shots, and that means there's a slight blurring and graininess in many of the scenes. It's a filmmaker's choice, but one which doesn't exactly provide a fitting showcase for the new Blu-ray technology. The colors are also deliberately desaturated in numerous scenes, while in others the filmmakers shot using a colored lens or wash. It's not a bad picture, but you won't see detail leaping out at you the way it does with some of the more eye-popping Blu-ray releases.
But the audio? There's nothing like uncompressed PCM (48kHz, 16-bit) sound to put the rumble in those jet engines. More than that, though, for a psychological thriller so much depends upon visual images and sounds, and here, even the rain falls and drips with incredible clarity and precision of sound. Though there are additional options in Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, and Spanish with English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles, I frankly don't know why anyone would choose anything but the pure HD sound.
The SD release offered a five-part making-of feature. The Blu-ray version gives you two of them, "Emergency Landing" (visual effects) and "Cabin Pressure" (designing the Aalto E-474). They're actually two of the three best featurettes (along with the tour of Los Angeles International Airport), but fans will wish they had the entire documentary. Personally, I would have rather had another short feature or two than the short film, "Jet Stream," by awardwinning filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg. Buena Vista has apparently contracted with Schwartzberg to produce short films along the lines of the Soarin' ride at Disney World, where the cameras pan-and-scan elements of the natural (and in this case, also mechanical) world. I could understand the logic behind it for the first few Blu-ray discs, because it was a way to showcase the new High Definition medium as much as anything. But now? It seems like superfluous fluff. Same, really, with the "Movie Showcase" feature, which gives "instant access to select movie scenes that showcase the ultimate in High Definition picture and sound." Okay, we get it. Hi-Def is better than standard definition. Don't waste disc space on Blu-ray touting features. Instead, give movie-lovers more features relating to the film itself.
Jodie Foster is a master at portraying a woman in terror who's trying to balance her fears with a survival instinct that drives her to somehow prevail. In "Flightplan," as in "Panic Room," she gives us a character who's able to sustain our interest and maintain our sympathies, even as the world presses tightly around her . . . and, by voyeuristic association, us.