Flightplan (dir: Robert Schwentke. With: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Erika Christensen, Greta Scacchi)
[Note: contains minor spoilers]
For the difference between silly and just too silly, crafty and bungled, compare 2005’s double bill of panic-in-the-skies Hitchcockian suspensers, Red Eye and Flightplan. The plot of Wes Craven’s movie was, in the proper manner of a Hitchcock McGuffin, thoroughly tossed-off: Cillian Murphy’s crazed assassination scheme was really just an excuse to get Rachel McAdams where Craven wanted her, pinned right there in her seat, and the movie rattled by in a way that discouraged us from probing its internal logic too bullishly.
Flightplan, whose premise is an outright steal from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, has a far more elaborate set-up, raising all sorts of paranoid possibilities in its first hour, but doing so in the crudely italicised fashion of a movie whose ambiguities are merely for show. The reveal is practically bound to be a let-down; certainly the film is happiest when falling back on its audience’s imagination for solutions to the central mystery, and for a while there’s ticklish pleasure to be had eliminating various answers and coming up with more original ones than the screenwriters look set to deliver.
But the film’s strangest details – the ones that spawned, at least in this viewer’s mind, the most tantalisingly baroque conspiracy theories – are revealed in the end as just maddening symptoms of its illogic. Why do Foster’s character and her daughter take their seats, unseen, before anyone else? Not because events have been so predetermined, but because the plot simply requires them to. How is it that Foster, a jet propulsion engineer, knows the whole plane – right down to ceiling panels in loo cubicles – like the back of her hand? Because it’s the only way the kidnapper’s masterplan can possibly work. Crasser still is the way the backstory of her character’s bereavement – obliquely and rather amateurishly shuffled into the opening credits – is first exploited to raise possible insanity as a red herring, and then subordinated into the daft mechanics of the actual plot against her.
Until this is uncovered, a moment less chilling than mundane, it’s possible to make allowances for the tacky overstatement of Schwentke’s direction (he made the dubious Tattoo, a German thriller about internet skin-art trading), because there’s still the slim chance that he might be up to something rather insidious, and because devices such as the twice-used 360° twirl around Foster in a moment of panic seem almost too hoary, too absurdly 1992, to be taken at face value. Plus, some 65 years old though it might be, the movie’s basic concept is strong enough that even bad staging occasionally works in its favour. The sky really is an excellent place to relocate Hitchcock’s plot, and don’t airline staff always look conspiratorial? Try this: for a good 40 minutes after Foster wakes up to discover the empty seat next to her, there isn’t a single exterior shot of the craft or view out the window. Is it even necessarily airborne? That’s the kind of sneaky lateral thinking thrillers like this thrive on, but the outright terrible final act retroactively erodes any confidence that we’ve been toyed with by a director who actually knows what he’s doing.
The problem is not so much that Flightplan is jerry-rigged – so was David Fincher’s The Game, a film I find taut, fascinating, and barely vitiated at all by being patently implausible from start to finish. No, the problem is more that Schwentke’s film, far less suspensefully handled than either Craven’s or Fincher’s, gives us very little else to grapple with that might divert our attention away from those games of spot-the-plot-hole pedantry. Like Fincher’s Panic Room, it has Foster, frontally positioned and giving it her all, but, even more so in this case, her emotional expressiveness seems ratcheted up to a point where it’s too obviously overcompensating for the script’s shortcomings. Again we get the now-obligatory shivers of new-world-order anxiety, including two Arab passengers on the plane who meet with Foster’s suspicion – though any post-9/11 thriller which has to actually trot out the words “post-9/11…” to clinch those resonances isn’t going about its job too delicately if you ask me. And we get Sarsgaard, who’s here, one assumes, to thank screenwriter Billy Ray for giving him his best role yet in Shattered Glass. This is his worst.
What made Flightplan look superficially inviting, I began to realise, was the shinily hi-tech production design by Donnie Darko’s Alec Hammond, but the promise of any real frissons being found up this plane’s capacious fuselage gradually becomes a vain one, not least because of the movie’s ballooning ineptitude in other technical departments. Worse, really, than the nonsensical plot logic of that last act is its sheer ugliness, with Foster and the villain playing cat-and-mouse around a set which inattentive editing and gimmicky cinematography conspire to make barely recognisable. Schwentke caps this spatial muddle with arguably the lamest and least pointfully deployed CG effect in a major movie since Die Another Day, and then an embarrassingly ham-handed apologetic coda involving Foster's fellow passengers. Let's put it this way: if Flightplan were a flight plan, it would entail cruising along pleasurably enough for about an hour before nosediving suicidally into the ground. Funnily enough, it’s the crash you remember. C–