THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Unlike some actresses, Jodie Foster doesn’t appear in two or three movies every year. But when she is in one, you can count on seeing a first-rate performance. In Flightplan, she plays Kyle Pratt, recently widowed after her husband took a tragic fall. Along with her six-year-old daughter Julia, Kyle accompanies her husband’s casket on a flight to New York from Berlin, where she works designing engines for airplanes.

The mother and daughter are the first ones on board the plane, and because Julia has developed a sudden fear of everything, Kyle keeps her “hidden” beneath her coat. During the flight, both fall asleep. When Kyle wakes up, Julia has disappeared. The flight attendants – including one played by Erica Christensen - are not terribly sympathetic (“she can’t get very far” is their general response). Kyle presses the issue, demanding that the plane be searched from top to bottom. Then comes word that Julia was never listed on the flight registry. No one remembers seeing the little girl either. An air marshal named Carson (Peter Sarsgaard) tries to calm Kyle down. With each passing minute, though, she becomes more defiant, sneaking into forbidden areas of the plane to look for herself. She knows her daughter is there somewhere and nothing will prevent her from searching.

Of course, a lot more could be said about the plot, but some things are best left untouched upon, lest they be ruined.

Flightplan reminded me of some other recent movies. Like Red Eye, it’s an airborne thriller with a female heroine. Like The Forgotten, it’s about a mother looking for a child who may or may not exist. And like Foster’s own Panic Room, it deals with a single mother and her daughter dealing with danger in a claustrophobic environment. While it may seem derivative on the surface, the picture generally borrows the best elements from those other titles. Calling a thriller “Hitchcockian” has become a major cliché; nevertheless, that’s almost exactly what Flightplan is.

It’s also one of those movies that made me nuts. Part of it may be my own personal fear of flying, but I think that the film did a good job of being intense. From the very start, the movie creates a palpable feeling of dread. Director Robert Schwentke gives the movie an ominous feel, even before the characters set foot on the plane. The look and tone are foreboding. The aircraft itself is filmed in such a way as to make it look sinister. It’s always shot from low angles, with the exterior made a deep, dark, sickly gray. (I realize this may sound a bit loopy, but I swear the plane is almost a villain in the picture.) These elements ultimately serve to set things off balance, keeping us guessing about what happened to Julia and wondering whether she was ever really there at all.

Credit for the constant tension must also go to Foster, who brings Kyle’s panicked fear off the screen and into our laps. The actress so perfectly conveys terror that my stomach knotted up in sympathy at times. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch as she desperately pleads with the airline staff and the pilot to go through the ship. Each time a search comes up empty, Kyle’s panic grows – and so does ours.

Despite many strong elements, I have two reservations about Flightplan. The first is that I’m not sure I buy the explanation of what happened to Julia. When all is said and done, the resolution seems more than a little implausible. While I realize that most thrillers are implausible, the mild lack of credibility is at odds with the ultra-realism of Foster’s performance. My other issue is the same one I had with Red Eye: both movies capitalize on our nation’s post-9/11 fears, yet don’t say anything substantial about it. Flightplan tosses in a minor subplot in which an Arab man is instantly accused of kidnapping Julia; this is a good start, but it really only leads to a pretty standard message about not judging people strictly on race. It would have been nice if the film dealt more head-on with the issue of modern day airline safety and paranoia.

These problems keep the film from achieving greatness; however, they shouldn’t detract you from seeing Flightplan. As a mainstream Hollywood thriller, it is tight and efficient. When the movie was over, I stepped out into the daylight and felt a weird sensation. It was a form of relief. The suspense had gotten to me more deeply than I expected. That skillfulness is reason enough to buy a ticket.

( out of four)

Flightplan is rated PG-13 for violence and some intense plot material. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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