David St. Hubbins was more right than he knew when discussing the fine line between stupid and clever. “Flightplan” is a pitch perfect example of it, in fact. It’s a simple premise with a convoluted payoff, and it depends on a series of staggering coincidences in order to stay afloat. To the filmmakers’ credit, they do a good job of deflecting any and all suspicion, but only for so long. In the end, they can’t escape their own contrivances, and while the movie is well executed, it’s fatally flawed.
Jodie Foster stars as Kyle Pratt, an engineer for an airplane manufacturer living abroad in Berlin. Her husband has just killed himself, and Kyle is taking her daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) back to the States to bury him. Kyle and Julia take a couple empty rows in the back of the plane to stretch out, and after snoozing for about three hours, Kyle wakes up to find Julia missing. She does a cursory check through the cabin (having worked on the engines for the plane, she knows the layout backwards and forwards), convinced that she’s off playing with other kides, but no one can find Julia. She has a sympathetic ear in Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), a US Marshal, but the jaded flight attendants aren’t terribly helpful, and neither is the captain (Sean Bean). The reason for that is, according to their records, Julia isn’t on the plane. Worse, the crew is telling her that they have a communication from the morgue in Berlin that not only is Kyle’s husband dead, but her daughter is, too.
Kyle begins to unravel. She got on the plane with her daughter, she knows it. Didn’t anyone see Julia? Kyle then goes into Protective Den Mother mode, using every trick she can think of to check every aspect of the plane, including the cargo holds. This doesn’t help her cause, as now both passengers and crew think she’s a nutcase, and the Marshal has no choice but to treat her as a threat to the safety of everyone on board.
At the risk of being a spoiler, if you think that Julia never boarded the plane, you haven’t seen many movies. But the truth is, I haven’t spoiled that for you; the studio did. There is a particular shot in every trailer I’ve seen of this movie that gives the game away completely. It brings to mind the trailer that Touchstone, the studio behind “Flightplan,” assembled for “Ransom,” yet another children-in-peril thriller. In that movie, Mel Gibson’s character turns the tables on his kidnappers, turning the ransom into a bounty for the kidnappers’ heads. A great twist, no doubt, but imagine how cool it would have been to not know that going into the movie. It would have been a totally different experience, yes? Well, too bad, because they based the movie’s entire ad campaign on that one scene, effectively neutering the movie before it’s begun, and they did the same thing here. If you don’t know which scene I’m referring to, I won’t give it away.
Still, this is only half of what is wrong with the movie. The entire second half relies on a series of events that is tenuous to say the least. If the first piece doesn’t fall into place – and in real life, it wouldn’t – there is no movie. In fact, there are several moments where the “plan” is in reality seconds from falling apart, and when the endgame reveals itself, the plan, as it were, is difficult to swallow. Call it sleight of hand moviemaking, where the audience is misdirected at such a pace that they can’t put the pieces together until the movie ends. Once they have the time to think about what they’ve seen, though, the more deceived they feel.
But God love Jodie Foster, who gives the movie her absolute all. Her Kyle is melting down on the inside, and barely keeping her composure on the outside. You can see the gears turning in her engineer’s melon, trying to figure out what is really going on. She sells it well, but unfortunately no one else appears to be as into it as she is. Seeing Bean play a pilot is almost amusing at this point in his career. This guy’s not a pilot, he’s 006, he’s Boromir, he’s a heavy duty man of action! Also, the sight of Erika Christensen (“Traffic”), once considered a hot up and coming talent, relegated to mousy flight attendant, is troubling. Certain movies can get away with asking the viewer to take gigantic leaps of faith or logic. “Just Like Heaven,” for example, asks you to buy the possibility that this one guy can see Reese Witherspoon, but her sister can’t. And because it’s a romantic comedy, we do buy it. Action thrillers used to have a similar leniency applied to them (“Bad Boys,” the later “Lethal Weapon” movies), but “The Matrix,” among others, changed those rules permanently. As a result, “Flightplan” feels like a movie out of time, something that would have been a thrill a minute in 1997, when audiences gobbled up airplane thrillers like, horrors, “Air Force One.” “Flightplan” is actually better than “Air Force One,” but that is hardly an endorsement.(2.5 / 5)