The care and craft exhibited by director Robert Schwentke in “Flightplan” is largely undone by a script that self-destructs in the third act of an otherwise well-made thriller toplining Jodie Foster as a passenger on a transatlantic flight who’s lost track of her young daughter. While Buena Vista is hoping the pic can achieve the fine biz done by Foster’s previous mom-and-kid thriller, “Panic Room,” the distrib may have to settle for the more middling returns garnered by recent airline-hostage pic “Red Eye.”
Distraught widow Kyle (Foster) is seen in frozen repose in Berlin’s empty Alexanderplatz subway station, then confirming her dead husband’s identity and imagining his companionship on the way back home through snowy streets with 6-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston, with strikingly large, sad eyes). German-born helmer Schwentke (“Tattoo”) knows these settings and establishes a portentous mood that points to a human-scale suspenser.
As she and Julia board the jumbo jet for the trip Stateside to bury her husband (who, we’re told, fell from their apartment building’s roof), Kyle reveals she’s a propulsion engineer who built the plane’s engines and knows the craft inside and out. Such a detail enormously helps her character later on, but, as it unfolds, also points to one of the plot’s myriad unlikely story elements.
Julia wanders off in one scene, sending Kyle into a tizzy, but it’s nothing like the girl’s seemingly total disappearance three hours into the flight.
Refusing to accept that Julia could simply vanish, Kyle grows increasingly frenzied as she demands action from the crew, led by Captain Rich (Sean Bean), a good listener who wonders if he has a delusional passenger. Whether a crime is afoot or a woman is losing her mind is what sends “Flightplan” to full boil, with Schwentke’s camera gracefully following the agitated Kyle and setting her in foreground shots against a sea of disbelieving travelers.
Watching her every move is federal air marshal Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), who worries Kyle could become a loose cannon — as when she eyes an Arab passenger (Michael Irby) and becomes convinced he spied on her in her apartment. Such moments begin to feel like distractions from the main event, which is so astoundingly improbable that it makes all of the film’s clever and meticulous craftsmanship feel like a ruse. Especially in a post-9/11 environment, Kyle’s actual dilemma emerges as a desperate third-act storytelling escape.
Foster throws herself into her tense role with every fiber. Except in one crucial instance, casting choices are well made, highlighted by Bean as the plane’s palpably conflicted commander.
As fellow German director Wolfgang Petersen did for subs in “Das Boot,” Schwentke creates a fascinating and suffocating atmosphere aboard the swank aircraft, and lenser Florian Ballhaus (working brilliantly in widescreen) and production designer Alexander Hammond (amazingly inventing an aircraft from the bolts up) erect a thoroughly credible cocoon in which cabin fever can fester. Visual effects in the finale look rushed and fake. James Horner borrows from Gyorgy Ligeti for an itchy score.