The First-Grader Vanishes … I mean Flightplan would like to be a Hitchcock movie when it grows up. Unfortunately, it never gets closer than swiping the premise of The Lady Vanishes, and instead ends up being perhaps the most absurd airborne melodrama since Doris Day landed an airliner in Andrew L. Stone’s Julie way back in 1956.
The sad thing about this melange of preposterousness is that director Robert Schwentke (in his first English-language film) has crafted a nicely made movie that is finally so undermined by its screenplay that it crashes in mid-flight.
There’s nothing wrong with the film’s “borrowed” Hitchcock premise; that’s certainly workable. In The Lady Vanishes, a young woman, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), becomes friendly with a seemingly innocuous elderly lady, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), on a train. After a blow on the head, Iris awakes to find Miss Froy replaced by a grim German woman. No one admits to having seen Miss Froy and it’s assumed that Iris is suffering from delusions — even Iris begins to believe this until she sees where Miss Froy wrote her name on a fogged window. It then becomes a case of her trying to find someone whom no one else believes in.
Flightplan slavishly follows this set-up. Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Julia (newcomer Marlene Lawston) board one of those fantastic luxury-liner planes that exist only in the movies. Kyle falls asleep and when she wakes, the child has vanished. Again, no one believes her because, it seems, no one saw Julia.
Moreover, Kyle is under stress (her husband has died and she’s taking his body back to the U.S. on this flight) and is on tranquilizers. Reports from the morgue come through that say that her child died in the same accident that killed her husband, making Kyle start to doubt her own sanity — and the viewer to wonder why she doesn’t think to ask the one key question that would come close to settling things, until reels and reels of film have unspooled. She becomes convinced of her rationality, however, when she sees (guess what?) a heart Julia drew on a fogged window.
Of course, this is 2005 and not 1938, and stopping a plane in mid-flight from Germany to New York isn’t a simple matter of pulling the communication cord. Instead, the film has Kyle become increasingly hysterical — to the point that even the viewer is apt to long for a tranquilizer gun — and put her knowledge of the plane (she helped design the thing) to work in a search of the airliner’s every nook and cranny. This is much to the annoyance of Air Marshal Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard) and Capt. Rich (Sean Bean).
The script tosses in a therapist (Greta Scacchi) for an extended and largely pointless sequence, as a kind of nod to Paul Lukas’ bad-guy shrink in the Hitchcock film. Being a post-9/11 work, the script brings in what can only be called a few “Arab herrings” for good measure. And while this is all OK nonsense, the movie completely self-destructs the moment it becomes clear what’s really going on.
From the moment one character changes expression for the first time in the movie and walks toward the cockpit carefully closing all the curtains along the way, the movie plummets into a swamp of ever-increasing — and increasingly amusing — preposterosity. Yeah, it was already nonsense, but here it becomes utterly silly nonsense, and no amount of Foster’s two-fisted histrionics or Schwentke’s directorial panache can save it.
The worst of this is that the film boasts a strong opening — almost horror-film-like in nature — that carefully sets up a scenario (almost cheating a bit to do so) where it would be possible that Julia actually isn’t there, only to wind up as just so much over-plotted ridiculousness. Rated PG-13 for violence and some intense plot material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke