The set is as much the star as top-billed Jodie Foster in Flightplan, the second airborne thriller to arrive in theatres (after Red Eye) in recent months. Nearly all the movie takes place aboard a multi-level, ultra-modern super-jumbo jet created by production designer Alexander Hammond. The set needs to be impressive, because it takes a while for Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray's script to lift off into the action altitudes that audiences will be expecting.
Foster plays Kyle Pratt, an aeronautical engineer whose husband has died in a mysterious fall and who now has the sad task of accompanying his body from Berlin back to New York. Both Kyle and her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) are emotionally fragile as they board the mammoth Aalto Air jet that will take them home. But more trauma awaits: Waking up from a nap, Kyle is unable to find her child anywhere on the plane, even after frantically searching both levels. Stranger yet, no one on the plane recalls seeing Julia, her boarding pass is missing, and her name is not on the passenger manifest. Kyle persuades the pilot to allow a more extensive search, but there's no sign of the little girl. Part of the plane's design team, the defiant mother refuses to sit quietly and manages to create some major havoc before being subdued by air marshal Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard). Is Kyle so consumed with grief that she's hallucinated visions of her daughter? Is it possible Julia has also died back in Berlin?
Stylishly directed by Robert Schwentke (a German making his Hollywood debut), Flightplan cruises at "Is she crazy?" speed for a long time before it starts to expose the machinations behind the mystery. The film owes a big debt to The Lady Vanishes, including a visual reference that will be a big tip-off to anyone who remembers that early Hitchcock classic. Layered upon that is the familiar tension of commercial flights in the post-9/11 age, including a group of Middle Eastern passengers who become ready suspects. Ultimately, the film gives us the Jodie Foster we love from movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Panic Room: a vulnerable woman who can really kick ass when there's no other choice. Foster probably handles that combination better than any actress of her generation.
The other actors are largely given the task of looking skeptical or exasperated, depending on their proximity to Foster's increasingly rattled heroine. The film makes good use of Sarsgaard's sleepy-eyed demeanor as a surprisingly boyish air marshal, and Sean Bean is sympathetically authoritative as the pilot faced with a surreal mid-air crisis. Director Schwentke swoops around his giant set with an energetic style that keeps this widescreen film from becoming too claustrophobic. The nefarious "flightplan" eventually revealed by the script is riddled with holes, but audiences who can't get enough of Jodie Foster in jeopardy will take the ride.