Jodie Foster's been looking a little tense lately. She has often gravitated towards characters who experience stress or anxiety, and in this, her face may be her greatest asset: With her thin, pointed nose, her tightly pursed mouth, and the worry lines creasing her forehead, she communicates focus and purpose with an intensity that must be the envy of Tom Cruise. This persona serves her almost too well in Flightplan, a Hitchcockian thriller about a woman who insists that her daughter went missing during a trans-Atlantic flight, and learns that there is just one problem: There is no evidence her daughter ever got on the plane.

Jodie Foster as Kyle Pratt, whose little girl mysteriously disappears midflight

Jodie Foster as Kyle Pratt, whose little girl mysteriously disappears midflight

The woman's troubles don't begin there, though. Kyle (Foster) has a deeply anxious look on her face from the very first moment we see her, sitting in a German morgue where her recently deceased husband has been put in a casket that, in accordance with international law, has been secured for transport back to the United States. As she awaits her chance to see her husband's body, Kyle imagines that she is meeting him at a subway station, and she imagines that they are happy together. Is it a flashback? A hallucination? Later, at the airport, she worries that she has lost track of her daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston). After some anxious panicking, she finds her girl at one of the shops. But is this real, too?

These are the questions that linger when Kyle wakes from a nap about three hours into the flight and cannot find any trace of her daughter. Frantic, she searches in sections of the plane where she is not allowed—which attracts the attention of Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), an air marshall—and she pesters the crew into letting her meet the captain (Sean Bean, who has little to do here, though for once, he isn't playing the bad guy). Although none of the crew can remember seeing Julia, the captain reluctantly tells them to search the plane, even though it means inconveniencing the other 400-plus passengers he has on board.

Some of the flight attendants don't care for the interruption in their routines created by Kyle's panic. One of these is Stephanie (Kate Beahan), who insists that she did a head count and never once spotted Julia; though who knows, she might have done the count when the girl ducked to pick something off the floor. Others, like Fiona (Erika Christensen), try to empathize. Kyle asks if she has any children. "Do nieces count?" asks Fiona. "Almost," says Kyle. Tensions rise among the other passengers, too, especially when Kyle spots a couple of Arabs and loudly insists that they were spying on her room in Berlin the night before. It comes as no surprise when we learn that she is taking medication for her anxiety.

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Kyle looks anywhere and everywhere for her daughter

Kyle looks anywhere and everywhere for her daughter

The scenes of people searching inside the airplane have a certain appeal, especially if you have ever wondered what an airplane's innards look like. Director Robert Schwentke, a German making his first American feature, has a large, cavernous set at his disposal, and he makes the most of every opportunity to swoop up the stairs from one passenger level to another, and to take the viewer into the cargo holds and other corners that are normally kept hidden from regular passengers. At points, it's a little like watching those movies in which people crawl around in air ducts, except here they get to stand up more often.

Alas, Flightplan does not hold up well against similar movies. The ambitious camera moves, the claustrophobic sets, and the imperilled mother-daughter scenario all bring to mind Foster's last major English-language film, Panic Room, but Schwentke is not the gutsy stylist that David Fincher is. Red Eye, the year's other big airplane thriller, featured two smart actors who played off of each other very well; you could almost feel the sparks fly as their characters intercepted and improvised around each other's newest strategies. In Flightplan, on the other hand, the closest thing Foster has to a co-star is Sarsgaard, whose placid mask of a face is no match for her hyper-intensity.

Sean Bean and Peter Sarsgaard as the captain and air marshall who try to keep Kyle calm

Sean Bean and Peter Sarsgaard as the captain and air marshall who try to keep Kyle calm

The scenes of people crawling through panels in the ceiling and so forth also bring to mind the Die Hard movies. And this, in turn, underscores a striking irony. John McTiernan has said that he insisted the bad guys in the first Die Hard must be after cash only, not politics, otherwise the movie wouldn't be so "fun"; and his point was proved in the second film, where the terrorists really did have a political agenda, and were much more grim. But this year's airplane thrillers reverse that logic. The bad guys in Red Eye had a political agenda, but the movie itself was a brisk, snappy crowd-pleaser. The bad guys in Flightplan—and yes, eventually the film does have them—are after only money, but the film is a drag.

Perhaps it's because Flightplan aspires to some sort of social commentary, which is handled pretty clunkily. Or perhaps it's because the bad guys, once they are revealed, turn out to be pretty lame. It's not just that they spell out their diabolical plans in hoarse, expositional whispers that you'd think might look a little suspicious to the plane's other passengers. And it's not just that they are so easily defeated once the slightest thing goes wrong, which means we never get a chance to relish their villainy. Their entire plan seems to hinge on a major stroke of luck—whether or not anyone will remember Kyle bringing her daughter on board—so it's impossible to take them seriously. While I do think that Foster and the movies she makes need to lighten up, that isn't quite what I have in mind.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How would you respond if someone said her daughter was missing, and you had no evidence that she had ever existed? What sort of evidence would you insist on? Which of these flight attendants gives the best response to Kyle's concern?

  2. How would you try to prove that your own child had gone missing, if you were in Kyle's place? Is her intensity, and her unwillingness to let others get in the way even if they have legitimate concerns, an asset? Or is it a detriment?

  3. Is Kyle correct to express her suspicions about the Arab passengers when she does? Should she have waited until she had more evidence? How do you think Carson and the other characters handled her accusations? Did they give her too much credit?

  4. One character says, "People think what I tell them to think. That's how authority works." Is he right? Wrong? What does this film say about authority? Do you think the film has anything to say about the state of authority in nations—or on airplanes—today?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Flightplan is rated PG-13 for violence and some intense plot material, including hostage-taking, occasional physical violence, and one big explosion. A couple of names are taken in vain, too.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 09/29/05

Two weeks ago, viewers were drawn to the edges of their seats during a real-life drama as a malfunctioning airplane made an emergency landing in L.A. This week, they're on the edges of their seats again for another airborne thriller, one that only Hollywood could have served up … Flightplan.

Jodi Foster stars as Kyle, a recently widowed propulsion engineer whose daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) disappears mid-flight. Where did she go? Does this have anything to do with the fact that her husband's body is in the cargo bay?

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The bigger questions are these: After Panic Room, are viewers ready for another two hours of watching Jodie Foster storm about in a maternal rampage? And does this film have anything to offer other than twists and turns?

Religious press critics are split. Some find it thrilling, others find it too far-fetched.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) praises Foster as "excellent." And he says, "If you can look past its more preposterous plot elements, Flightplan is an intelligent nail-biter that keeps you guessing. And though the final departure is a bit disappointing, for its genre, it's worth boarding."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) writes, "I have to admit, [director Robert Schwentke's] Hitchcockian thriller played me like a Stradivarius." He goes on to explain how this mystery eluded his attempts to solve it. He concludes, "Add emotion to the mix and the result is more than satisfying. … The fact is, Flightplan is a wild, escapist ride that challenges all sorts of assumptions and gives us the most tenaciously maternal character since Lt. Ripley protected Newt from slithery, slimy Aliens."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says, "Flightplan is 90 minutes of non-stop suspense that capitalizes on every mother's—and air passenger's—worst fears. Director Robert Schwentke does a masterful job at making audiences feel that uncomfortable combination of jittery, sleepy, anxious, exhausted, and jumpy, while simultaneously making us care deeply for a grieving mother and her daughter.From the very start there are little clues to the mystery, which, in retrospect, are fascinating details that weave the story together most creatively."

Mainstream critics aren't so impressed.

from Film Forum, 10/06/05

ndrew Coffin (World) says, "Many thrillers begin with an engaging premise and quickly fall apart once the setup gives way to predictable plot climaxes and chase scenes. Flightplan … follows this pattern and is notable only for a stronger than average start and a particularly absurd conclusion."

Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) say, "The underlying theme is a fascinating one. As a therapist attempts to calm her delusion and the other passengers discount her claims, Kyle's experience is what many feel as they walk through grief. Patronizing pastors and therapists, discounting friends and family, often increase the pain of the loss. Though this film only explores these issues in a shallow way as they use them to create a suspenseful mystery, the lessons are ones worthy of our consideration."

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for violence and some intense plot material)
Directed By
Robert Schwentke
Run Time
1 hour 38 minutes
Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean
Theatre Release
September 23, 2005 by Touchstone Pictures
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