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Flightplan   C

Touchstone Pictures / Imagine Entertainment

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writer: Peter A. Dowling, Billy Ray
Cast: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Marlene Lawston, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Michael Irby, Assaf Cohen, Erika Christensen.

Review by Sean O'Connell

The website JumpTheShark.com debates the exact moment that popular television shows started going downhill. Various reasons are attributed to the decline -- the show's characters tie the knot (I Dream of Jeannie), move to a new city (Laverne & Shirley) or use the gimmicky catchphrase, "Tonight, on a very special Blossom."

Can movies jump the shark? I'm always arguing with close friends and fellow movie buffs that the bulk of today's films start off strong but fail to convincingly finish. Flightplan, a claustrophobic Jodie Foster thriller constructed around a midair kidnapping, is a perfect example of a half-decent nailbiter that can only sustain its palpable tensions until it tries, and fails, to produce an acceptable motive to explain what we've watched.

For 45 minutes, Flightplan provides a swift ride to those who buy into the mystery. Director Robert Schwentke holds information close to his vest as we catch up with widow Kyle Pratt (Foster) and her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston). Their nerves frayed, the two board a transatlantic flight bound for New York that carries Kyle's deceased husband in the cargo hold. Three hours into the trip, mom wakes up to find her daughter has disappeared. She launches a preliminary search but grows more frantic as the pilot (Sean Bean), flight attendant (Erika Christensen), and in-flight marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) explain that Julia never boarded the plane.

Cynical audiences who have been duped before (thank you, M. Night Shyamalan) will have their internal lie detectors set to stun as they scope out scenes for clues of Julia's existence. We pay closer attention to the timid child than her mother does -- who sees her, where has she wandered off to, what has she touched. Schwentke emphasizes the film's cramped confines, using every inch of his cabin to maneuver his lens and test the limits of his camera's crane. His visual stylings hide the screenplay's blatant manipulation of our culture of fear for false thrills. According to Flightplan, air travel has become so dangerous that we can't even snooze during the in-flight entertainment because our loved ones might exit, stage left.

The second half continues to twist our post-9/11 fears, dropping taboo "H" words like hijack and hostage to signify a current-events plot angle that strips away the suspense. I'll toss my own "H" word into the mix -- hogwash. Flightplan officially jumps the shark the minute Kyle transitions from mom to MacGyver, climbing through crevices so she can elude her armed escort and rewire the airplane and buy herself some time. Her tinkering causes cabin pressure to drop, and it takes the film's feeble credibility with it.

Flightplan won't be screening on an airplane anytime soon, though you'll probably be able to catch it on Showtime, sandwiched between Pauley Shore and Stephen Baldwin movies airing in the dead of night. Foster's go-for-broke plunge into the material makes the flimsy twists barely tolerable. As for Schwentke, the German director seems to be working his way through our modes of transportation. His next picture, Runaway Train, puts combustible liquids and poisonous gas on a freighter and shuttles it toward a city. Is Baldwin available?

Review published 09.26.2005.

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