A group of Somali pirates try taking to the skies in “Default,” which portrays the negotiating crisis that ensues when American journalists are held hostage on a chartered plane in the African archipelago republic of Seychelles. An effectively tense thriller shot in found-footage fashion, Simon Brand’s feature is releasing simultaneously Oct. 17 at the Arena in Hollywood and on VOD. Its modest immediate prospects will be brightened by rising lead thesp David Oyelowo’s imminent higher-profile turns in “Selma,” “Interstellar” and “A Most Violent Year.”
After a prologue showing the tragic end of a hostage drama at sea, we meet a quintet working for the network “American News Corp., wrapping up a trip to an island off Africa’s west coast, where they’ve shot a puff piece on how to avoid “the perils of paradise” while traveling near foreign danger zones. The divide between the four crew members (Katherine Moenning, Stephen Lord, Connor Fox, Jeanine Mason) and their much older on camera talent, Frank Salzman — a famous veteran broadcast newsman now reduced to gigs like these — is exacerbated when the young ’uns pull a thoughtless prank on their superior. He is unamused, though somewhat mollified after the subsequent evening’s drinks and apologies.
Next day, they drag their hangovers onto an incongruously huge, ominously decrepit old jet booked at a discount to take them to Nairobi, where they’ll then catch regular flights back home. But before they can take off, the craft is stormed by four armed hijackers led by the bilingual Atlas (David Oyelowo). When airport authorities figure out something’s amiss, military personnel surround the jet. Stuck on the tarmac, the presumed Somalian pirates demand that Salzman interview Atlas for immediate broadcast on ANC before further negotiations can proceed. But the irascible old reporter refuses to stick with the script he’s handed, asking his captor questions that reveal Atlas has a secret agenda — one possibly at odds with the strictly monetary renumeration his more temperamental, trigger-happy associates had in mind.
Meanwhile, the other hostages (also including two pilots and a flight attendant played by Peres Owino) are largely left alone under the nervous watch of the youngest, least experienced perp (Harbi Mohameud). They try plotting means of escaping or overpowering the kidnappers, despite threats of violent retribution for any disobedience. And as all this unfolds in the cabin interior over several hours, we see world media — following the story as an international incident, largely due to Salzman’s fame — report on the very touchy situation from the viewpoint of reporters, negotiators and special-forces personnel on site outside.
Jim Wolfe Jr. and Dan Bence’s script has a slightly more conventional thriller feel than recent similar fictions “A Hijacking” and “Fishing Without Nets” (though arguably no more so than the fact-based “Captain Phillips”). Nonetheless, it remains plausible and tense, with Colombian helmer Brand (making his second English-language feature eight years after his more commercially slanted suspense debut, “Unknown”) deploying the found-footage conceit to good effect. It’s not always totally clear why protags are being allowed to videotape the situation by their captors, and pic sometimes cheats (albeit almost unnoticeably) on its own aesthetic premise. Still, editing, camerawork and claustrophobically escalating crises keep intensity level high enough that most viewers won’t care.
Perfs are strong, though only Oyelowo and Callahan get to provide more than one dimension to their characters. Resourceful, Los Angeles-shot low-budgeter is solidly assembled, with Xander Lott’s unobtrusive yet unsettling score a plus.