Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky wishes this movie came with an air sickness bag.
"I'm responsible for anything that might become a threat to the safety of this flight. Women with imaginary children qualify."—Air Marshal Carson (Peter Sarsgaard)
If you ever catch this as the in-flight movie on your next airplane trip, you will be sorely tempted to walk out before it ends. With or without a parachute.
Facts of the Case
Distraught widow Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) is returning to America from Berlin with a coffin, a daughter, and a creeping sense of vertigo. Fortunately, she knows one thing for certain: she knows every detail of the airplane she and daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) are taking home. She actually designed the gigantic E-474. So at least, she believes, the trip home will be comfortable.
But when Kyle wakes up from a nap only a couple of hours into the flight, she discovers that her daughter is missing—and no one aboard has any memory of little Julia at all. Is Kyle crazy? Is there a conspiracy arrayed against her? It is a Hollywood thriller—what do you think?
Dear Ms. Foster:
Please do not be concerned. I am not a stalker; I pose no threat to you or your family. I just thought we could talk a few things out at this stage in your career. I know you are upset about the collapse of the Flora Plum project. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one major cast member might be regarded as a misfortune; to lose the entire project looks like carelessness. But I do not want to appear heartless. I know you are in mourning about that project, which you invested so much time in that you turned down numerous roles and threatened to stall the momentum of your justifiably respected career.
Perhaps it is in your state of mourning that you came to empathize with Kyle Pratt in this movie. I mean, she has just lost a husband in a tragic accident. Of course, we do not know anything about the husband, or Kyle's relationship with him, or their family dynamic, other than that have a daughter. I trust that you, as an actress, are capable of filling in all the nuances of their relationship that the script takes for granted. Of course this is necessary for a film like Flightplan to work effectively: we need to understand why Kyle is so broken up over her husband's death that she might hallucinate the presence of a daughter.
So, I am wondering why you actually do not give us any sense of her relationship with her husband or her daughter. I suppose it is not your fault. You were likely trusting the screenwriters to fill that in. I expect you were also trusting them to fill in the personality of your daughter in the film, Julia Pratt. We certainly would not want an adorable little girl like Marlene Lawston to be treated in a movie like this simply as a prop to give the story direction.
Oh, wait. She is just a prop. She does not actually have a personality. But I expect you knew that, since you work so hard, playing Kyle that is, to make it seem like Julia is important and that we miss her. I get the impression, watching you in this movie, that you are always working hard to fight the screenplay to Flightplan. Almost as hard as Kyle fights to defeat the bad guys and save her daughter.
Yes, Jodie—can I call you Jodie by this point, or should we keep our relationship strictly professional, as does this movie, which never refers to Kyle as other than "Mrs. Pratt"—even though the plot summaries for this film push the idea that Kyle might be only imagining her daughter, I was not fooled for a second. There was no chance that she was insane, no matter how many camera spins director Robert Schwentke throws at the audience. This is what they call a "Hitchcockian" thriller, so we know right away that there will be some overcomplicated and villainous scheme going on. So who is the villain, out of the 425 passengers on the plane? Could it be one of the recognizable, name actors? How about therapist Greta Scacchi (Presumed Innocent), who conveniently turns up to provide some grief counseling as a way to pad between acts two and three? How about by-the-book captain Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings)? Overly helpful and sympathetic air marshal Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass)? Or any of the host of stock characters (obnoxious family, blustering guy with mustache, grouchy Arabs)?
A thriller like Flightplan pretty much survives on the strength of its third act, where the secret plan gets revealed. Jodie, did you read the third act when you agreed to make this movie? Did screenwriters Billy Ray (who directed the fine Shattered Glass, so he should know better) and Peter Dowling (who, well, I can't actually find any credits for him, so I'll trust that he is a fairly smart guy anyway) even have a third act? I cannot imagine that they did. Because for you to actually have read the third act for this movie—which jettisons all the psychological tension that the film tries to achieve (although unsuccessfully, since as I said, we already know the daughter isn't imaginary) in favor of yet another Die Hard knock-off—well, again, I can only assume you were so distracted that you did not notice how bad the third act is. It seems as if the screenwriters kept twisting themselves around trying to make the film more suspenseful—and then decided to cut their Gordian Knot with a pair of children's safety scissors.
Or maybe you knew all this. Maybe this is why you are noticeably absent (as is all the cast) from the cursory collection of extras on this Flightplan DVD. In the 40-minute documentary about the film's production, we learn that Hollywood movies are crafted by committee: many, many people keep tweaking and snipping until they can safely drain the movie of any actual flavor. We do hear screenwriter Billy Ray remark that stress helps define character, presumably speaking of Kyle Pratt. But since we really never learn anything about Kyle's character other than she is a "concerned mommy," I expect this is a pretty short definition he is talking about. Director Robert Schwentke, who seems to have been imported from Germany specifically to make big-budget, content-free action movies, says this is a movie about a woman "rebuilding her psyche," but again, any actual rebuilding gets thwarted by the lack of personality given to her imperiled daughter and sidetracked by the purely plot-driven third act. The director seems to imply in his commentary about how decisions in the film, especially the third act, were driven not by the needs of a character "rebuilding her psyche," but by the desires of test audiences.
Apparently of more interest to the producers of the film, since they devote a separate 10-minute featurette to it, is the creation of the airplane for the movie, the behemoth they call the Aalto E-474. It certainly is helpful to have a completely fictional airplane for this movie. First, you never have to worry about pesky realism that might distract the audience. You can also make your airplane extremely shiny, with perfectly comfy seats and plenty of atmospheric green lighting. Two floors, endless tunnels (all even shinier than the plane's passenger sections), and more amenities than you can possible enjoy in a single transatlantic flight. I kept waiting for one of the flight attendants to announce a shuffleboard tournament on the Lido Deck.
And it certainly helps the story, Jodie, to make your character an expert on the plane's design. By which I mean that it helps lower any tension level in the film, since we don't want to actually upset any of the audience members who might still feel touchy about air travel. You know how to sneak around the plane, immediately know where all the nooks and crannies are, and you never, ever seem to break a sweat. And since the plane has such a long trip, we know you have plenty of time to straighten all this out. So we do not get a real sense of urgency. We never really feel that concerned about your safety, just as we never really feel concerned about the daughter we don't really know (and, since this is Hollywood, we know will eventually escape unharmed thanks to your heroics).
I keep hearing over and over in the extras on this film that the script was originally written for a male lead, a traditional action hero type trying to rescue his kidnapped son. You can certainly keep up with any male action hero. Actually, I wonder if this movie might have been more interesting if you had played against type as the villain, Jodie, and the producers had picked a male lead to take your part. As I've made clear throughout this open letter, I respect you greatly as an actress. I've been a fan of yours since I saw you in Bugsy Malone (I was a little young for Taxi Driver, so I never caught it until college). I own two copies of The Silence of the Lambs. But casting you as Kyle is the obvious move. It allows the screenplay to hit all the conventional notes: maternal instinct, feminine hysteria, sentimentality towards children.
Imagine putting a male in your role, to show him anxious, desperate, and protective of his daughter. And you as the potential threat. Now that would be more subversive, more authentically Hitchcockian. And you could even keep the third act, since the subversive tweak would easily blind the audience to the plot clichés and bland dialogue.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Flightplan is a pleasant distraction for at least two-thirds of its running time. I used this disc as my first official test of my new surround system, so I went for the DTS track. If anything, the choice of an airline cabin (even a cavernous one like this movie uses) is great for immersive audio effects: I could hear every hum and rumble, every passenger chattering all around me. The cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (who graduates from second unit to the big time here, although as the son of seasoned veteran Michael Ballhaus, he certainly has talent in his blood) is glossy and warm, far more comfortably cinematic than any actual airplane I've been in. Maybe I'm just not choosing the right airlines.
So, while Flightplan looks and sounds good, its glossy exterior hides a cold, calculated thrill-machine designed to distract audiences from a lack of character and content. And the obligatory quality of the extras reinforce the notion that this movie was, for all concerned, pretty much about getting the job done.
Jodie, why did you agree to do Flightplan? Were you hoping that it would be a solid "mother in peril" thriller like Panic Room, giving you a few years more to work on personal projects without jeopardizing your A-list status? I don't blame you for the failure of Flightplan, nor do I blame the supporting cast or the director, who were all just there to do their jobs efficiently and make a standard studio thriller. But I do blame the screenplay. You cannot make a competent lasagna with a layer of bat guano in the middle and expect that I will just eat the yummy parts. Flightplan is the result of too many cooks, each of whom is just trying to get the job done in a purely businesslike fashion, and none of whom seems to have any clue how badly the entire dish is going to come together.
Next time, Jodie, I recommend you find better cooks.
This movie is ordered back to the gate, where its passengers will undergo body cavity searches.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Commentary by Robert Schwentke
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