Sometimes a movie works in spite of itself. If I revealed everything that happens in the 2005 thriller "Flightplan" you'd realize that most of it is pretty far-fetched; so preposterous, in fact, and yet presented so straight, that it would sound like a total disaster of a movie. But, as I say, it works. It works because enough of it catches our attention and keeps us guessing that we don't entirely mind that the last third falls into clichés; and the performance of star Jodie Foster is so good, she helps us forget just how absurd the whole thing can really be.
Yes, the movie contains plot holes big enough to fly a Boeing 747 through. Except that in this case, it's an Aalto 474, and Jodie Foster's character helped design it. Look, in order for any thriller to work, the audience has to sympathize with, identify with, or relate to the main character in some way. If we don't care about the main character, nothing in the movie will seem "thrilling" because we simply won't worry about him or her. This is where "Flightplan" works.
Jodie Foster plays a woman named Kyle Pratt, an aeronautics engineer who has just lost her husband. As the movie opens, she and her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) are flying the husband's body back from Germany, where they currently live, to the United States for burial. Kyle is in a deep state of sorrow for her husband's passing, especially as his death was caused by his either having fallen or his having jumped from the roof of their multistory apartment building.
Kyle and Julia are the first to board the plane, one of the 474s that Kyle helped design. Nobody seems to notice them enter. Once in flight, Kyle takes a brief nap, and when she awakens, she can't find her daughter. What's more, nobody has seen her. What's even worse, nobody remembers ever having seen her. Kyle becomes frantic and demands a thorough search of the entire mammoth airplane, a plane so big it carries 425 passengers. The daughter does not turn up. She's nowhere to be found.
Then the captain (Sean Bean) begins questioning Kyle's story. The plane's manifest shows that Kyle boarded alone; the seat next to hers was marked as unoccupied. Kyle insists she has the child's boarding pass, but she can't find it. Nor can she find the daughter's carry-on luggage, which has vanished along with her. The airline has no record of the girl, her ticket, her very existence.
The questions mount, for the captain and crew and for the viewer: Is Kyle paranoid? Is she imagining things? Has her grief made her delusional? Was she fantasizing about bringing her daughter on board the plane? Does she even have a daughter? Or is there a monumental conspiracy working against her?
The first third of the film advances the dilemma. In the middle third, Kyle, who knows the airplane backward and forward, decides to take matters into her own hands and get to the bottom of the mystery. She's determined she's not crazy and wants her daughter back. The final third of the film presents the resolution, and it is here that it may disappoint the audience. Somehow, I for one expected a lot more from all the buildup.
Still, it's Jodie Foster who keeps the thing together. Her performance is intense, sincere, her character fully exhibiting a form of controlled panic. Beyond seeing Foster's mere expressiveness, we see her character's total alarm and total resolution in the fierceness of her eyes. We feel for her; we worry for her; we cheer her on, even when we're not entirely convinced she's in her right mind. We adhere to the same kind of hope her character clings to.
Meanwhile, there are the supporting characters who ably make Kyle's situation seem so real. Sean Bean's captain is the picture of reassurance, the sort of pilot you would hope to have in charge every time you go up in an airplane. Yet we also see his relative helplessness in solving the problem. While he does everything in his power to assist Kyle, it is obviously not enough; there is nothing he can do. And there's Peter Sarsgaard as Carson, an air marshal whose job it is to maintain the security of the plane and its passengers. He, too, appears ready and able to lend whatever support he can to Kyle's cause. But it appears to everyone concerned that hers is a losing cause.
It's that first part of the film, though, that grabs you. The music and sound effects are especially productive in building up a sinister, quietly tension-filled mood. When the plane takes off and, indeed, when it is in the air, it's loud, very loud, and shaking realistically. The cinematography builds a claustrophobic feeling of being powerless to help oneself in an enclosed space. Ominous foreshadowing creates doubts about everything we see: Mysterious men seemingly observe Kyle and her daughter the evening before they leave; Kyle remarks to her daughter about "hiding" her on the way to the airport; the little girl wanders off on her own in the airline terminal before the flight; and Kyle thinks two passengers look vaguely suspicious, as though she recognized them from somewhere. They are Middle-Easterners, Arabians. Is this part of the conspiracy Kyle fears, or is she, in her extreme anxiety, engaging in a racial stereotyping?
One thing is sure: "Flightplan" will have you guessing. You may not like the surprises it has in store, but it's hard to complain about a picture that at least tries to hold your attention.
Incidentally, and not to be picky, but neither the Webster's Third International Unabridged nor the Random House Unabridged Dictionary lists the word "flightplan" in their pages; each book insists upon two separate words: "flight plan." Oh, well. One word makes a better movie title.
The picture quality is good, capturing most of the movie's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in an anamorphic screen size that measures about 2.17:1 across my television. The colors are quite bright when necessary, but just as often they can be dim, soft, and muted, too. Understand that the filmmakers' choice of color scheme is limited, given that most of the movie takes place either in dull, drab outdoor weather or inside the confines of an airplane. Detail in darker areas is good, as are facial tones, while general detailing in other areas is only average. The overall impression one gets most of the time is of an exceptionally clean image, although one that can be somewhat glaring and glassy at times, with a few fluttering lines.
The English audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. In DD 5.1 you'll find one of the best movie soundtracks of the year, considering the degree of realism it creates, with plenty of surround information to provide the proper ambience of an enclosed airplane. A lot of squeaks, creaks, rattles, moans, passenger voices, and background music in the rear channels add to a realistic sense of presence throughout the main part of the film. The bass and treble are more than adequate, and the all-important midrange is well balanced and clear, conveying a strong dynamic impact.
There is the usual assortment of extras on the disc, the first up being an audio commentary by director Robert Schwentke. His observations seem more analytical than you would hear from most directors, going into detail as he does about not only the how's but the why's of each sequence in the movie. Next up is a thirty-eight-minute documentary, "The In-Flight Movie: The Making of Flightplan," which is divided into five self-explanatory chapters: "The Story of a Thriller," "Meet the Director," "Casting the Film," "Post Production," and "Visual Effects." The last major item is a ten-minute featurette, also self-explanatory, called "Cabin Pressure: Designing the Aalto E-474." The extras conclude with a measly fourteen scene selections; a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at seven other Buena Vista titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
In another of those monumental coincidences, Hollywood released a similar thriller about a woman in peril on an airplane, "Redeye," which exhibited almost the same strengths and weaknesses as "Flightplan." Namely, they both start out well, filled with mystery and suspense, and then both descend into standard hokum. Oh, well...again.
Interestingly, I also found "Flightplan" similar in construction to M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village." But in the case of "Flightplan," I thought the first two-thirds buildup was enough to justify the remainder of the movie, whereas in Shyamalan's case, the ending was so empty, so mundane, it put me off the rest of the film altogether.
I think most people looking for a decent thriller will find it in "Flightplan." It's not a great movie because it takes the easy way out at the end, but it holds your attention long enough to get your money's worth. The movie may not soar, but it flies.