on September 23, 2005 by Sheri Linden
As lean and taut as the muscles on Jodie Foster's fine- boned face, “Flightplan” is a terrific-looking thriller that wastes no time with embellishment or asides. German director Robert Schwentke has rallied his cast and creative team in the service of an intensely focused nail-biter. But as efficient as Peter Dowling and Billy Ray's script is, the elaborate scheme at its center is so preposterous as to keep audiences at arm's length, even as everything else about the film, from the performances to James Horner's music, aims for edge- of-the-seat suspense.

Snowy Berlin locations make for an evocative opening sequence, in which American propulsion engineer Kyle (Foster) prepares to return to the States with her six- year-old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston). She's taking home the body of her husband, who has died in an accident. Or was it an accident? In the numbed shock after her sudden loss, Kyle is hyper-alert -- or paranoid. Everything about these opening scenes leaves her sanity open to question. Soon enough, the crew of her Aalto Airlines flight is pondering the same question -- and drawing unfavorable conclusions -- when Kyle claims, mid-flight, that Julia has disappeared. No one seems to have noticed that the quiet little girl was ever on the plane -- not a condescending, strangely shellshocked flight attendant (Kate Beahan), a sympathetic new hire (Erika Christensen) or the snarky air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) who tries to rein in the increasingly frantic Kyle. Although there's no record of Julia having boarded, the captain (Sean Bean) indulges Kyle's demand that the plane be searched. He draws the line at her entering the cargo hold or nether- regions that passengers who aren't well-versed in jet design wouldn't even know exist.

The script plays upon contemporary tensions in Kyle's cringe-provoking confrontation with an Arab passenger (Michael Irby). The self-contained setting is well exploited, the sense of onboard claustrophobia powerful, even in the relatively vast expanse of the story's state-of-the-art airliner. Alexander Hammond's ace production design and d.p. Florian Ballhaus' icy blue images approach pure sci-fi poetry, especially in the final act's primal face-off between good and evil. Foster delivers a thoroughly committed performance in a story riddled with implausibility, while Sarsgaard is, as usual, intriguingly off-center. But what the filmmakers have forgotten as they reach for Hitchcockian suspense and come up with an escapist exercise is that, for all his economy, Hitchcock let his stories breathe, too. Starring Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Michael Irby, Erika Christensen, Marlene Lawston and Greta Scaachi. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Written by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray. Produced by Brian Grazer. A Buena Vista release. Psychological thriller. Rated PG-13 for violence and some intense plot material. Running time: 98 min

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