RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 35: Robert Schwentke’s “Flightplan” (2005)


The Players…

Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Erika Christiansen and Kate Beahan with Greta Scacchi and Marlene Lawston.

The Story…

On a trans-Atlantic trip back home—and fresh from her husband’s funeral no less—Kyle Pratt and her 6-year old daughter, Julia will try their best to get back to New York with a sense of normalcy in check. Then Julia disappears, vanishes en route. Now Kyle has to frantically piece together the events, or lack of them, to find her daughter.

Wait. What daughter?

The Rant…

I’ve never cared for air travel. Now don’t misunderstand me. I am amazed that such a thing exists. Think about it. When you take a flight, you’re basically defying God and nature, and yet it’s all so simple. Birds have been doing it for millennia. Adjust to air currents, ride the warm air while deflecting the cold, bend this way and that and voila, you’re up in the air. Amazing, yet so basic.

Sometimes I wish I were born twenty or thirty years earlier in regards to air travel. Back in the day, travelling by jet was a big thing. Often a sumptuous thing. People actually got dressed up for the opportunity. And the hospitality was impeccable. Friendly stewardesses smiling, refilling your drinks with no cutoffs, actual meals on china with real silverware (AKA, weapons of mass destruction), endless cigarettes, hot towels for your face, and somehow the latest news from your fave periodical before they hit press. Luxury personified.

These days, not so much.

If you survive the ass-raping at TSA, finagle your luggage at baggage claim for under 50 dollars, and  present your driver’s license (to board a vehicle not designed for the roads) over a dozen times to disagreeable wage slaves who hate every single traveler, such luxury of speed and efficiency went out the portal aeons ago for you. Your grandparents used to wear ties and hats on board. Now you wear a furrowed brow.

These days when us passengers are dragooned into the sterile fuselage, we get frustrated and violated—even after the ass-raping—with cramped seats, overworked and rightly surly flight attendants, sh*tty, mid-level movies displayed directly in front of you which you couldn’t ignore if you tried, and instead of a hot towel for your face, a barren safety lecture with no smiles in sight greeting you upon your butt being stuck into a seat that would be small for a leprechaun.

When I have to fly, I always pick an aisle seat. It’s not like I get vertigo looking out of the window at the wing. I’m just not genetically designed to wedge myself into the matchbox seat allowed in Tourist. I need to swing my legs out into the aisle to permit blood flow below my crotch. I’ll deal with the flight attendant’s duties of shoving the beverage cart down the lane, only to ask me to swerve back into rank. These lost seconds assure I’ll be able to actually walk again in a few hours.

There are always exceptions, of course. It can’t be kidney-crunching every flight. Once, I had a genuinely pleasant flight. From the aisle, of course. On my way home from a trip to Colorado, I got plunked down next to a stranger, like most of us do. Usually these are people we forcefully ignore, what with their drooling on the flat pillow—which could be used as a flotation device—snoring into your face and smelling like dead shrimp. Not the case with guy I had the fortune of sharing seats.

Seats. Plural. We had lucked out. The plane wasn’t at full log-jam capacity, and he and I had a row to share. Him on the wing side, I on the aisle. We flipped up the armrests and had a comfortable dialogue for the next three hours. We chatted about our jobs, places we’ve been, musical tastes and other errata that are usually associated with a Palahniuk single-serving friend. I figured that since we were permitted our legs to breathe, we could get chummy too. He was a nice guy, and the last and only nice guy I ever sat with on an airplane. Usually I’m stuck with a family member. Where are those damned peanuts?

But the above tale is a rarity these days. Air travel ain’t what it used to be. Modern marvels of technology have become routine. These days, when we board a plane, it’s the little things we get on the ground that make us smile (we can get good peanuts anywhere down there). And as for that lame “sandwich” us passengers are now supposed to eat? These days, thanks to rampant fear of terrorism in the skies and the need to maximize the profits, air travel has become a slog. It’s akin to riding a metro bus: dingy, airless, customary and generally not fun. Stick us in an aluminum can with processed air, lumpy seats, no real, mature meals and an endless stream of The Simpsons shoved into your unwilling view. I’d prefer thumbscrews.

A major issue—if not the major issue—I take with being in a plane is the claustrophobia. No matter how large the jet is, it always feels so damned cramped. It’s most likely about all the bodies being ass-to-elbow for hours and hours. The air is recycled and gets rather stale after a while, the stuffiness enhancing the already close quarters. It’s like the passengers are all in a large, tubular, plastic bag of goldfish won at a carnival; pick you up, hold still in a tight space as the oxygen levels get low, plop back down again somewhere else, leaving you disoriented. But none for the wear when you finally get home.

But all that confined space can really grate on you, almost to the point that you can forget you’re flying, actually on your way to a destination. I took a red-eye once—more like a black-eye—to Hawaii. This was from the East Coast. Twelve hours, most of it over the barren Pacific, and me with my long legs getting nary a reprieve. Since the plane wasn’t at full occupancy, I must’ve changed seats a dozen times, to stretch my legs a get a change of scenery.

What scenery?!? Another headrest? The f*cking wing again, this time on the other side of the plane? And all those on-flight magazines and puke bags all look alike to me. No matter where I moved, that feeling of claustrophobia was inescapable. It was another world, one populated by strangers and endless rows of identical seats. The narrow aisles went on forever, but the ceiling is so low, and five feet in front of you was no different than five feet behind. It’s not just the claustrophobia; you feel cut off from reality.

It’s enough to make any seasoned traveler lose their mind…

Aerospace engineer Kyle Pratt (Foster) made a hard choice. Two of them. Letting go of her steady life in Berlin, and also her husband, who ended his own life. Now having no roots to hold her to her ex-pat life, she opts for the second choice: go home to New York with both her daughter and husband’s casket in tow and maybe begin again. Or return to the womb. Some things are not really clear.

Halfway through the trans-Atlantic flight, the worst happens to a new single mom: her daughter disappears. Not gone, not missing. Disappears. She’s not even on the flight manifest. After losing her husband, the thought of losing the next piece of her now frail family is unconscionable. Kyle wakes up to a blank seat and head full of grief and bewilderment. And a lonesome teddy bear. And panic.

Solitary passenger Gene Carson (Sarsgaard) is taken with Kyle’s plight, and offers his best to keep her grounded. Turns out he’s the air marshal, and summons the captain (Bean) to both assist in locating the lost child and keeping the passengers calm.

After scouring the plane for the missing Julia (Lawston) with no luck, Kyle is smacked upside the head with the evident truth: there was no Julia Pratt accounted for in the flight’s passenger count. Not at all. A frantic search of the plane ensues, with no lost child found. Kyle begins to question her own sanity, as well as how she got to this point.

The jet of her own design might just be her own padded cell…

Apart from the vibe I was trying to oh-so-subtly intimate with the intro, I was alluding to—however vaguely—my affinity for Hitchcock’s middle works, from 1950 to 1960.

These were “The Master’s” golden years as far as I’m concerned. Prob’ a lot to other Hitch junkies too. The first Hitch film I snagged in full (which was for a college English class no less; I had before gleaned scenes on afternoon cable from North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and even Frenzy) was Rear Window. One of two of the man’s best. The other being Psycho. By the way I refuse to believe the present-day hype surrounding Vertigo, usurping Citizen Kane as the best film of the 20th Century. My stepdaughter said “meh” to Vertigo and I believe her. My wife’s response to Psycho, however, was better; she couldn’t sleep for days. Anyway Window was superb, for simply its economy. At the time, it was Hitch’s most expensive set; the whole thing was crammed into one indoor movie lot. I once heard a bit of lore that during filming the intense, deliberate lighting got so hot that it set off the fire sprinklers. Hitch, ever the dapper gent, produced an umbrella and instructed the crew to keep rolling. Remember the thunderstorm sequence in Window? There ya go. Economy.

Economy is the name of the game in Flightplan. The claustrophobia I talked about earlier was the raison d’être for the film’s life. Here we have Jodie Foster, escaping from a tight life in Berlin (it’s hinted at that it wasn’t her idea) to get back “home” with the only remaining vestige of what home now is: caring for her daughter. Every scene on Flightplan is tight, economical.

Right. Foster’s character is supposed to be a aeronautics engineer, who conveniently designed the plane (an obvious dues ex machina if there ever was one) she’s riding in, and not so subtly knows the ins-and-outs of the jet so to assure her frenzied mind that little, lost Julia is somewhere aboard. What’s cool here, however, is the bowels of the plane is like world unto itself; an alternate reality that seems to be a metaphor for Kyle’s sense of displacement. But her mania comes across as overwrought (although sympathetic, which I value with Foster’s acting chops). Foster, as always, gives it her all, but it doesn’t seem necessary for Flightplan.

This is where the movie starts going south. We got a strong plot device (the classic “little girl lost” scenario), a capable cast, a great setting…and the plot begins to fizzle out against Foster’s emoting. Don’t misunderstand me; you all saw her as Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. Again, right, Oscar-worthy. Here she’s trying to recoup those past glories—quite well, I may add—against a bunch of newbs. Save Sean Bean’s icy Captain Rich. However, the only remarkable role Bean has ever offered in my cinematic mind was as 006 in GoldenEye. Not a bad role, but nothing to truly commit to his CV. If there are any doubts, refer to my little screed about Bay’s The Island.

Flightplan really loses its gas when entering into the second act revolving around Foster’s cracking up. That is all we’re given. Bean, Sarsgaard, Christiansen, all of them become wallpaper. Foster’s restrained scenery-chewing distracts us from the actual story, which hasn’t really gotten anywhere yet. For the first third of Flightplan, we as the audience are awash in boredom and a color-by-numbers sub-Hitchcock mystery. Only Foster’s tense performance is keeping us afloat. She does a good job, but admittedly Foster’s Kyle is rigid and distant, and not just beyond the frozen feeling of loss stated earlier. Despite her usual flair for convincing drama, Foster’s trick bag seems out of place on this plane. Based against these dramatis personae, hers—again—doesn’t seem necessary.

In the name of not throwing out spoilers, I’m gonna keep the Flightplan’s villain’s name anonymous. Yes, there is one; wouldn’t be much of a mystery with out one, right? And I hate spoilers just as much as the next popcorn-head. Comics writer Peter David put it best: they’re not spoilers, they’re ruiners. I had a friend blow the ending of The Sixth Sense for me (back when Night made movies you actually wanted to see). She assumed I had already seen it and, well, you know. Although that totally didn’t trash the movie for me, I would’ve preferred to come to my own conclusions. I’m gonna assume that you are the same way, so:

Okay, we know Julia’s gone missing, and obviously there’s foul play afoot. However the villain’s motives are not made clear. Even when we see what they’re up to, it’s still not clear. I’m not saying the motivations should be crystal—there’d be no mystery if it all made sense right away—but they should at least be, y’know, understandable.

This “twist” is not subtle enough; you get no room to figure it out. The rollover is just so blunt that you’re not left with an “ah-ha” moment. It’s more like “…The hell?” This is where the film goes completely off the rails. Nothing makes much sense after the climax. Sometimes it works when the director is diligent in leaving a few ends untied and not let the villain explain their motives. I mean, I love Hitchcock’s work, and homage is welcome when it’s done right. Director Schwentke is trying to do something right, if only in pulses. It’s just that climax.

Some of those pulses include the whole Arab/suitcase thing. Granted it’s a distraction technique, and any moviegoer world their salt would get that immediately. But it works here, especially when it’s revisited several times over the course of the movie. Playing on people’s prejudices is always a great way to get the juices flowing, and it looks no better when a crazed passenger can’t find her kid and is just champing at the bit to find someone, anyone to blame.

One technical thing I really enjoyed from Flightplan is the editing. It’s some of the best I’ve seen. For such a small set, a lot can be said for spacing out scenes almost chapter-like to escalate the tension and further move the story—however incoherent—along. Even with the smooth editing, however, the story has hiccups. The first two acts are nothing but Foster freaking out, Sarsgaard and Bean trying to bring her back to earth and this hammering the point that Julia is missing, Julia is missing. Okay, we get it. F*cking find her already. You gotta have the patience of Job to get to the meat of the story, and when it arrives—such as it is—you’re almost relived to (cue Monty Python) get ON with it! Flightplan would’ve worked better as a fourth season installment of the original Twilight Zone. Y’know, the hour-long eps. And in ratings competition with The Alfred Hitchcok Hour. The editing may have been cool, but a lot of the final product should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

Flightplan’s Hitchcock influence is inescapable, not unlike the claustrophobic conditions on a long flight. Like Hitch, the cinematography is all hard angles, the set is virtually monochrome, drab, and cluttered with mirrors and reflections to allude to that the characters’ are not all they seem to be. All this may be tribute, but if the story is sloppy, or redundant and just plain confusing…well, there’s a difference between escalating tension via subterfuge versus plain bamboozlement.

Regardless of Flightplan’s faults, it wasn’t a total waste of time. You get to see Jodie Foster lose her sh*t, which she’s quite good at. The set work was cool as well as the aforementioned editing. The acting was overall decent, and the directing serviceable. Sure, it was mediocre and derivative Hitchcock, but honestly, you don’t see many movies like this made much anymore, probably because it’s been done better. But Flightplan could’ve been a lot worse.

Got my peanuts. You may now return your stewardess to her original, upright position.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, believe it or not. Even boiled-over Hitchcock is better than no Hitchcock at all. And since the Millennial generation approaches Hitchcock as much an artifact as Paul McCartney, any gateway to great films can benefit from some rumor and sigh.

Stray Observations…

  • “How loud do these headphones go?” “Not quite loud enough.”
  • I liked the strategic “turbulence.” A little deliberate, but it works.
  • “Sure he did.”
  • Those damned kids…
  • “It’s not like she lost her Palm Pilot.” How’s that for dating a movie?
  • Despite his sleepy features, Sarsgaard’s has efficient acting with his eyes. They pierce, almost to offset Foster’s wide-eyed glare.
  • “Take her belt or shoelaces or something?” The only humor in the film. Even I laughed.
  • Slow clap…

Next Installment…

John Cusack has no luck with women. It seems the only faithfulness he can muster is some High Fidelity for his most recent, decent, departing girlfriend. His dedication/obsession with her might be even higher than towards his record collection. Might.

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