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"Flightplan"

Sean Bean BTSSaturday October 22, 2005

"Flightplan"

By Derrick Bang/Enterprise entertainment editor

Published Sep 23, 2005 - 14:35:26 CDT.

Three-and-a-half stars. Passenger aircraft thriller starts well, then becomes too contrived.

About midway through "Flightplan," after she has seriously disrupted the 400-plus passengers on her Berlin-to-New York flight during a frenzied search for her missing 6-year-old daughter, Jodie Foster's Kyle Pratt is led back to her seat in handcuffs, the captain having ordered her secured.

The passengers applaud, more than a little relieved that this clearly unbalanced woman has been dealt with, once and for all.

It's a chilling moment that perfectly reflects what director Robert Schwentke and writers Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray do best in "Flightplan": highlight the increasingly unsettling process of flying in these uncertain times. Aircraft travel now is the antithesis of the exciting social adventure that was sold to America in the 1960s; it has become, instead, a precarious mixture of worry, suspicion and latent hostility, where unspoken rules mandate lowered glances and muted behavior.

God forbid anybody should display authentic emotion, as Kyle does while trying to find her little girl; she immediately becomes a social outcast to be shunned - and, ideally, somehow removed - rather than a human being in distress, who requires and should receive assistance.

That's simply not part of the airline experience these days.

Foster sells these scenes superbly, her face and body movements a desperate struggle between her recognition that restraint is called for, and her urge to yield to hysterical panic. Sadly, panic succeeds, in great part because, as an aviation engineer who helped design aspects of the state-of-the-art plane on which she's flying, Kyle understands full well all the places a wandering little girl might hide or have met with an accident: the cargo hold, the flight deck, the crew's sleeping quarters, the electronics room, and so forth.

This, in turn, only makes Kyle look more suspicious to all the other passengers, precisely because she does seem to know far too much about the plane ... a level of information that makes the word "terrorist" float into nervous minds.

Then, too, there's the other major problem: Nobody - neither passenger nor crew member - remembers ever having seen little Julia, and her name doesn't appear on the flight manifest ... nor can Kyle find the second boarding pass she swears was in her pocket.

Certainly Kyle has reason to be anguished; this journey to New York has been forced by her husband's untimely death from an accidental fall back in Berlin, where the family was living for the duration of Kyle's current job assignment. Indeed, the film opens as Kyle bids a final farewell to her deceased husband before his coffin is closed and sealed - another anti-terrorism requirement - and then loaded into the plane's cargo bay for transport to New York.

And while this film's early scenes between Kyle and Julia (Marlene Lawston) seem tangible enough, Dowling and Foster stage them ambiguously; Kyle's grief is almost overwhelming, and this wouldn't be the first film to play fast and loose with perceived reality. Think of Russell Crowe's extensive and lengthy conversations with a character who, it turns out, isn't there at all in "A Beautiful Mind." "Flightplan" is the sort of thriller that wouldn't be above tricking us, for the sake of a plot gotcha.

Or are we, instead, dealing with a high-tech update of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes," with its similar tale of a single train passenger who cannot get anybody else to acknowledge the supposed existence of an older woman with whom the heroine earlier shared a lengthy conversation?

No doubt about it: The set-up is cleverly conceived and deftly executed.

The resolution, alas, fails on both counts. The third act of "Flightplan" is nowhere near as satisfying as what precedes it, and in fact the script becomes so contrived and convoluted that you're guaranteed to leave the theater scratching your head and mumbling, "But what about..."

The goal here was obvious: to give Foster another thriller vehicle that allows the sort of heroic chops she demonstrated so well in the fiendishly inventive "Panic Room." Heck, "Flightplan" even plays on the same claustrophobic environment: the need to surmount danger from unknown quarters in an enclosed setting.

But "Panic Room" holds together, start to finish, and does so honestly; it does not try to trick the viewer, and its characters faithfully behave according to their nature. That's often not the case with "Flightplan," which relies increasingly on bizarre coincidence and unlikely responses.

The setting is part of the problem. For the purposes of their story, the filmmakers concocted a fictitious jumbo-jumbo jet, a next-generation Aalto Air E-474, with a passenger capacity of more than 700 ... which, so the thinking goes, provides a curious little girl with all sorts of crevices in which to get lost. If she's on board in the first place.

But this multi-layer set is so huge, so opulently designed, that we don't buy it for a second. The upstairs bar, with all its clattering and insufficiently secured bottles of alcohol, is particularly ridiculous. The forward avionics bay, filled with winking and blinking computer towers, is the sort of silly sci-fi nonsense that may have looked cool back in 1966, when "Fantastic Voyage" was made, but now screams artifice.

It all looks like a set, rather than a plane ... which is a far cry from the verisimilitude generated in the recent "Red Eye," an equally improbable but vastly superior aircraft-oriented thriller. The plane in "Red Eye" feels and sounds like a real plane; the flying hotel in "Flightplan" is obvious stuff and nonsense.

That said, the actors do their best. Foster always is compelling, and she certainly sells the warring complexities of Kyle's character. Sean Bean is superb as the plane's captain - a perfect mix of intelligence, compassion and professionalism - who weighs his duty to all the other passengers against Kyle's obvious distress, despite the mounting evidence against any aspect of her story.

Peter Sarsgaard is properly sympathetic as Carson, a passenger seated close to Kyle, and one of the few willing to help; rising Aussie actress Kate Beahan rather overplays her part as Stephanie, a stewardess who seems needlessly exasperated by Kyle's mounting concern.

Come to think of it, that's another bit of unlikely artifice; the captain aside, the rest of the flight crew is frivolously, insultingly nonresponsive, even during the early scenes, when Kyle's first late-night search is conducted quietly and relatively calmly. Must they all be dismissive or outright rude? The only exception is Erika Christensen's young stewardess, Fiona, but this part proves so under-developed that I can't imagine why an actress of Christensen's stature would have wasted her time with it.

Although handsomely mounted and capably performed, "Flightplan" eventually collapses under its own weight. There's such a thing as being too tricky, and this film succumbs to it.

Pity. For awhile, it had me going.

Rated PG-13, and much too harshly, for brief violence and dramatic intensity.

- Reach Derrick Bang at dbang@davisenterprise.net or 747-8047.

http://www.davisenterprise.com/articles/2005/10/21/entertainment/movies/flightpl.txt
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