Friday, November 25, 2005

Review - Flightplan

Honestly; you wait ages for an airborne Hollywood thriller and then two come along at once. No sooner has Wes Craven’s Red Eye left the runway than the much larger proposition of Flightplan looms into view. Everything about Flightplan is on a much bigger scale than Craven’s nifty effort; it contains a major star in the lead role, the plane involved is the biggest thing in the sky and the film features much more of the action you expect from a mainstream thriller. Unfortunately Flightplan seems burdened by these added features, resulting in a film which is as bloated and cumbersome as its predecessor was nimble and witty. And as the initially intriguing plot unravels before our eyes we come to realise that bigger definitely doesn’t mean better on this occasion.
Flightplan is the English-language debut for German director Robert Schwentke and he opens in portentous style, with the oddly-named Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband. Kyle is boarding this plane with her six year-old daughter Julia to transport her husband’s body back to New York from Germany, where the family have been residing for the last few years. The tone of this opening is resolutely solemn with Foster’s face contorted in grief from the off. However, when Kyle and Julia board the plane Schwentke loses his fondness for slow zooms and arty transitions to slip smoothly into standard Hollywood action mode.

The action occurs because Kyle wakes up from a nap on board to see that Julia’s seat is empty. She searches for her daughter and when she doesn’t turn up anywhere Kyle’s confusion and fear grows until she’s convinced that somebody has snatched her little girl. Kyle has the increasingly annoyed cabin staff search every nook and cranny on the plane (of which there are many), until they discover evidence which indicates that Julia never got on the plane at all. Is Kyle losing her mind? Or can she prove that she’s the victim of a crime or - gasp! - a conspiracy?

Flightplan contains one quite intriguing moment which marks it out as a post-9/11 thriller, when Kyle’s suspicion falls immediately on two Arab passengers who she thinks may be using her to help with their terrorist plot. It’s a single moment of social awareness and potential ambiguity in a film which otherwise has nothing on its mind but Jodie running, Jodie shouting, and Jodie kicking ass.

That’s not so say the film doesn’t have its moments. Schwentke’s handling of the early tension is sound; his camera glides up and down the plane’s many aisles and levels and he smartly develops Kyle’s confusion and anguish as the search for her daughter continues with no success. For her part, Foster is as professional about all this as you might expect and her display gains the viewer’s interest early and maintains it pretty well. Foster’s steely demeanour always runs the risk of her characters appearing too cold, but on this occasion - as with the similar Panic Room - it acts to her benefit as she invests Kyle with a determination and spirit that makes her refusal to take no for an answer plausible and compelling.

For a while, Foster’s committed performance is almost enough to make you take the film’s many absurdities and plot-holes with a pinch of salt, but the point finally comes when any semblance of credibility is jettisoned and the plot spirals into a tailspin which can only end in disaster.

That point occurs with around twenty minutes to go and it’s a twist so ludicrous, so laughable, that it scuppers any goodwill the film has managed to build. Red Eye was similarly afflicted with a number of implausible moments, but it managed to get away with them thanks to the brisk pacing and dry wit which it displayed. Once the reason for Julia’s disappearance is finally revealed the audience’s only response can be “why?”, and we are lurched into a rushed finale which is utterly bemusing. The story simply does not make sense on any level and the climactic revelations only encourage the viewer to look back over the film and spot all the other nonsensical moments which slipped through first time around.

It becomes clear that this is little more than a flimsy skeleton on which to hang a number of chase and fight scenes. Kyle conveniently helped design this enormous aircraft so her knowledge of its layout enables her to lead the crew a merry dance around every shaft, aisle and lift; but while Red Eye took place in an average passenger plane and developed the drama by concentrating on two passengers sitting side by side, Flightplan’s more expansive setting comes off as a rather dull and unimaginative take on the likes of Die Hard (and Foster already has one of those under her belt with Panic Room).

It’s such a shame that Flightplan is so shoddily constructed because there’s some serious potential being wasted here. Sean Bean and Peter Sarsgaard are the captain and air marshal respectively who may or may not be trustworthy (both actors look like they should be playing villains even when they’re not), but their performances are one-note and they sound as bored of the uninspired dialogue as we are. Meanwhile Greta Scacchi has a pointless cameo and Erika Christensen is far too talented an actress to be fobbed of with such a nondescript role as this.

Flightplan so dearly wants to be measured as a modern day Hitchcockian thriller, and The Lady Vanishes is this film’s obvious template, but the staggeringly bad plotting throws away the promise of the decent premise and wastes a typically strong turn by Jodie Foster. I know a film should be measured on its own merits alone, but it is nearly impossible to avoid making comparisons with Red Eye and Flightplan comes off looking worse in every department. Those who have already taken the earlier flight offered by Craven have no reason to endure this one, it’s an uncomfortable long-haul flight which is only ever heading for a crash landing.