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Let's See, The Peanuts Go Down This Aisle: Jodie Foster designs the next generation of superjumbo jets in 'Flightplan.'


Jodie Foster's 'Flightplan' is 'The Lady Vanishes' at 40,000 feet

By Richard von Busack

A BLUE-METAL SHEEN gleams off Flightplan, a streamlined—if not ingenious—piece of entertainment machinery. Its star is Jodie Foster, whose steely-blue eyes are lit by harsh fluorescent lights throughout the picture. Because of near-constant weeping, her peepers look like a pair of bloodshot ball bearings. The metallic motif continues in her jewelry—a pair of gray pearl post earrings that are like nail heads sticking out of her earlobes.

The film gives us Hitchcock's plot for The Lady Vanishes at 40,000 feet. In the slightly near future, a superjumbo airliner with bar and first-class lounge is flying from Berlin to New York in the dead of winter. Aboard is the bereaved—and perhaps out of her mind—jet-propulsion engineer Kyle Pratt (Foster), who has just been freshly widowed when her husband did a jackknife off the roof. With her is her traumatized 6-year-old daughter, who disappears in midflight. No one saw a thing.

Director Robert Schwentke (serial-killer pic Tattoo) presents as diverse an array of red herrings as were ever laid on a fishmonger's slab. First, there's Greta Scacchi as a psychiatrist, luxuriously perverse like Gale Sondergaard, peering at Foster through thick spectacles, as if through a microscope. An array of Arabs trade significant glances with one another. Erika Christensen plays the too tightly coifed stewardess on her maiden voyage. Christensen does an admirable impersonation of the Hitchcock amoral blonde while remaining brunette. The husband's corpse is below in the cargo hold in his coffin—dead, or is he? Devotees of The Third Man won't have any great faith in Teutonic morticians. The jet's pilot is Sean Bean, an actor with a long screen history of smiling and defiling. Lastly, there's Peter Sarsgaard as an unamused air marshal, stuck with the duty of calming down the first hysterical, then coldly vengeful, mother.

The direction is everything a fan of smooth, cold efficiency would want. Schwentke glides through the cabins, pushing his camera through doors and skating along the bulkheads. It's slick, but there's never a problem of claustrophobia. The opening sequence is the most assured: Foster, frozen in grief, sits alone on the Alexanderplatz subway station platform: she's motionless because the rounded hulk of the subway train has reminded her of the oversized coffin in which her husband lies. Later, the polished metal capsule turns up again, larger this time, in the form of the superjumbo jet—sleek and gray under the new snow. Schwentke also shows us an ominous image before the fateful flight. An Art Deco bust with helmet frowns out of the arch above the front door of Foster's Berlin flat. Something took a massive chunk out of its crown. It's never explained but that something was perhaps the late Mr. Pratt, who could have met up with it in a head-to-head collision.

Unfortunately, Schwentke's efficiency is matched by his humorlessness, and ultimately the script does in the film. The explanation of a locked-room mystery is rarely as satisfying as the buildup, ever since the decline of the International Criminal Organization in paranoid pulp: "Bin Laden? Oh, him. He is, how you say, only one of our many pawns. And scarcely the most important of them."

Flightplan (PG-13; 88 min.), directed by Robert Schwentke, written by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray, photographed by Florian Ballhaus and starring Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard and Sean Bean, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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Web extra to the September 21-27, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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