While she's earned countless industry kudos for her work in more serious fare, Jodie Foster also happens to be one of the very few actresses working today that can "open" an action movie. In the boys club that is Hollywood, it is refreshing that an actress of her caliber can pull in the big numbers, and that she can do it without resorting to the Julia Roberts/Reese Witherspoon safety zone of fluffy romantic comedies. The last three big films she's toplined -- 'Contact,' 'Panic Room' and 'Flightplan' -- could just as easily have starred Bruce Willis. In fact, 'Flightplan' was originally written for a male lead until Foster stepped in, which only further proves her weight in Hollywood: if you have the power to get a script greenlit and retooled for your distinct persona, you must be doing something right.
Unfortunately, the gender switch is about the only real ace 'Flightplan' has to play. Despite an exciting concept and a certain humanity that Foster brings to the material, there still isn't enough here to surmount a cliched script and one of the lamest climaxes to an action-thriller in recent memory. The setup is a spiffy one, though. Foster plays the bereaved Kyle Pratt, whose husband recently committed suicide. She now has the unpleasant task of escorting his body overseas and back to the U.S., with her 8-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) alongside. But only minutes after take-off on a packed commercial flight, daughter Julia goes missing somewhere on the very high-tech, double-decker aircraft. Fearing Julia has been kidnapped, Kyle instigates an extensive, often frantic onboard search for her daughter, led by concerned federal agent Carson (Peter Sarsgaard). But when Julia turns up absent from the flight's manifest, and not a single passenger is able to recall seeing her onboard, Kyle's sanity is questioned. Is Julia really missing, or is something more dubious at play?
The first half or so of 'Flightplan' is riveting. Foster, as always, is adept at creating a believable, three-dimensional character regardless of how thinly-sketched on the page. Her chemistry with the cute little Lawston is also genuine and affecting, so when the young girl disappears, we are instantly on Kyle's side. I also liked how the super-fantastic plane becomes a world unto itself (as the script conveniently sets up, the plane was actually engineered by Kyle and the aerodynamics firm she works for). The growing suspicion of the crew also really ratchets up the tension, nicely feeding off of Kyle's near-hysterical paranoia to great effect. And here, too, the A-list cast elevates the material, including a quietly commanding Sean Bean as the pilot, and, in a smaller role, Julia Stiles as a supportive flight attendant. By the mid-way point, as we the audience begin to seriously question Kyle's state of mind, I thought 'Flightplan' might go in directions that few other rote Hollywood thrillers would dare go.
Alas, my high hopes were dashed. Once the truth behind Julia's disappearance is unraveled, 'Flightplan' quickly degenerates into cliches. Though I still loved watching Foster kick ass in full-tilt Ripley mode, it was disheartening that the screenwriters and filmmakers squandered the possibilities offered by the film's strong setup. Did we really need a paper-thin, totally obvious villain? A ticking-clock finale, complete with a big explosion? And the concluding scenes -- which attempt to weave in a subplot-slash-social commentary on racism and terrorism -- make even the insipid 'Crash' seem subtle.
Still, believe it or not, I'm inclined to recommend 'Flightplan' at least as a rental, if only for Foster's performance, some very cool production design (I want to live on that plane) and some effective, fluid direction by Robert Schwentke. I'm interested to see what Schwentke does next, as he adds enough visual pizzazz to these proceedings that even the lame third act action stuff plays better than it has any right to. In short, 'Flightplan' was always watchable -- even if it played like a beautiful souffle that suddenly deflates, leaving only the bittersweet aftertaste of missed opportunity.
When 'Flightplan' hit standard-def DVD earlier this year, I remember reading largely positive reviews, but then not being all that impressed with the image quality when I saw it for myself. Thankfully, 'Flightplan' on Blu-ray is a nice step up.
The flick is one of the first two titles from Buena Vista to get the BD-50 dual-layer treatment (alongside 'Pearl Harbor'), and is presented in 1080p/VC-1 video -- another first for the studio (see related news story). The positives are the pristine source material and an effective use of sporadic bursts of color. I remember seeing the film theatrically and thinking it was a bit dark and heavy on the steely grays and blues, and effect which is accurately recreated here. Blacks are nice and inky, and aside from some intentionally muted exterior scenes with blown-out whites, contrast is smooth and consistent. Colors tend to be muted, especially fleshtones, at least until some of the brighter interior scenes. There is also some heavy use of filters in the early, morose pre-flight sequences (particularly Kyle's morgue flashbacks, which have a sickly green tinge), but again things pick up once the plane is in the air. The midnight blues of the aircraft's production design are striking, as are various shimmering reds and oranges that highlight the second act, as Kyle explores the lower depths of the plane. Hues remain pretty solid, and are certainly far less fuzzy than the standard-def release. Compression artifacts are also not a problem, likely due to the roomy expanses of the BD-50. This is definitely one of Disney's strongest Blu-ray releases thus far, though it doesn't quite top my current favorite from the studio, 'Enemy of the State.'
'Flightplan' sounds just as fine as it looks -- although you may not notice it at first. The film's sound design is deceptively (and sublimely) simple. How refreshing to hear a soundtrack that doesn't pummel you over the head with noise, but instead lulls you in with complex atmospherics.
Buena Vista rolls out the red carpet with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track at 48kHz/16-bit. What impressed me most were quietest moment. The rears never knock you out, yet the minor discrete sounds have an eerie, consistent integrity that builds and builds as the film progresses. Particularly nifty is the way low bass tones insinuate themselves in the mix, turning such innocuous effects as the sound of the aircraft's engines into an ominous-sounding monster. Lest one think from reading this that 'Flightplan' is somehow some sort of art film, there are a couple of moments of typical bombast in which the surrounds are more pronounced, namely the film's eye-rolling conclusion. Otherwise, dialogue is front and center and always intelligible, and pans between channels are focused and seamless. 'Flightplan' definitely delivers some of the best atmosphere I've heard yet on a Blu-ray release.
Some were disappointed with the standard-def DVD release of 'Flightplan' because its extras seemed pretty slim for a such a high profile title. With only a single audio commentary and two featurettes, many felt a double dip would soon follow. But given the film's strong but not exceptional box office performance, a double dip doesn't seem very likely to me. In any case, I personally found the supplements that were included to be a bit underrated.
The audio commentary with director Robert Schwentke is actually quite excellent. Refreshing in his lack of pretension, he admits right upfront that 'Flightplan' is a "one-trick pony" -- essentially an exercise in wringing out as much tension as possible by hiding a little girl on a plane. He is of course highly complimentary to his actors, particularly Jodie Foster, but shines brightest when detailing the mechanics of the high-tech aircraft. His dissection of what is and isn't a practical effect is often fascinating, even for a guy like me who usually doesn't give a hoot about special effects. Much to my surprise, I wasn't bored for a single second during the director's entire 98 minute commentary.
Here's where it gets a bit confusing. On standard-def DVD, the "The In-Flight Movie" production documentary clocked in at 40 minutes and was a bit more lengthy than most. Sure, the structure is a straightforward five-part making-of arc ("Security Checkpoint: Making of a Thriller," "Captain's Greeting: Meet the Director," "Passenger Manifest: Casting the Film," "Connecting Flights: Post-Production" and "Emergency Landing: Visual Effects"), and the production footage is comprised entirely of on-set interviews and stagey behind-the-scenes clips. But perhaps because Schwentke, Foster and co-star Peter Sarsgaard are such intelligent filmmakers, their insights into the movie's themes and characters are a cut above. However, this Blu-ray version gets snipped of only one of the segments, "Visual Effects." Why, I don't know, but if anything, it is impressive how seamlessly the practical and computer-generated effects were integrated in the finished film. Also included is the 10-minute "Cabin Pressure: Designing The Aalto E-474" featurette, which delves even further into the sets -- why this material wasn't just integrated into the main doc and presented in full is a mystery.
Unfortunately, Disney does not provide any theatrical trailers for 'Flightplan.'
'Flightplan' is a thriller with a set-up is so good that it is impossible to not to be disappointed by its rote conclusion. But Jodie Foster shines regardless, even if this is just another one of her 'Panic Room'-like, not-without-my-daughter scenarios. This Blu-ray release is a solid effort, with a fine transfer and a sublime soundtrack. On the downside, some may find the shorn extras a bit too slim, and I personally found Buena Vista's latest "Blu-Scape" short film forgettable. Still, on the bottom line, 'Flightplan' delivers.