Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster), an American engineer living in Berlin, has just lost her husband in a tragic accident. She's in shock but she's trying keep it together for the sake of her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston). Rather than grieve in a foreign country in the middle of a harsh winter, Kyle's opted to fly back to America to bring her husband's body home and to stay with her parents for a while.
As her flight cruises across the Atlantic, Kyle wakes from a much-needed nap to discover Julia's missing. Her daughter has a habit of wandering off but a quick search of the plane doesn't find her, nor does an announcement by the cabin crew. Frightened that her little girl has been abducted, Kyle rounds up the flight attendants (headed by Erika Christensen and Kate Beahan), the air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) and the pilot (Sean Bean) and she demands that the aircraft is searched from top to bottom. The crew aren't too enthusiastic about doing that and not just because of the inconvenience. According to their records, Kyle is travelling alone. Her daughter was never on board.
Flightplan is an efficient thriller and, in its final half hour at least, an exciting one. If it's not as entertaining as the recent, similarly themed Red Eye, that's because it takes itself too seriously - more seriously than its flimsy storyline can withstand. In its early stages, Flightplan teases us with all the possible directions it might take. Is Kyle going mad? Does her daughter exist? Is there something metaphysical going on, like there was in The Forgotten? The arty direction by Robert Schwentke and the eerie, sci-fi production design support these possibilities.
As it happens, the solution to the mystery is the most simple one imaginable - you can hardly call it a twist - and I think the film would have been better had it copped to that earlier on. Red Eye's unpretentiousness was one of its virtues. Wes Craven took a silly premise and had fun with it. Robert Schwentke takes an equally silly premise and tries in vain to pretend it isn't silly. By doing so, he renders the film less enjoyable than it might have been.
The first hour of Flightplan is grim, even harrowing. We're asked to share the anxiety of a newly widowed woman whose only child has disappeared, a proposition which doesn't exactly offer a laugh a minute. In fact there's almost no humour at all in this film. There aren't really any likeable characters either. Jodie Foster is sympathetic, yes, because we understand her plight but we never get to know her and she spends most of the film on the brink of hysteria. This material works on a visceral level, just not in an entertaining way.
The final half hour does provide some proper thrills. There's a huge injection of energy the moment Jodie Foster's character stops snivelling, sets her jaw and decides that a woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do. Finally, there's the bad-ass Jodie we remember from The Silence Of The Lambs and Panic Room! The climactic cat and mouse chase, which seems to cover every inch of the vast airliner is extremely well done. Flightplan gets one thing right that Red Eye didn't: it stays on the plane to the bitter end. There's no anticlimactic change of locations.
While I'm not going to discuss the ending in depth, I don't think it's a tremendous spoiler to tell you that the two Arab men Kyle thinks she recognises from Berlin will turn out be innocent. Both the law of red herrings and the law of Hollywood political correctness dictate that they'll have nothing to do with anything. This is rather heavy-handed message-making and, to throw the filmmakers' political correctness back at them, it's a little tasteless to use such a sensitive issue to provide a red herring.
Jodie Foster gives an effective if limited performance in the lead. This is hardly a stretch for her. Sean Bean on the other hand is impressive in an pleasingly down-to-earth part, playing a professional torn between his duties and his sympathies. Peter Sarsgaard and Erika Christensen are both good, although they're ridiculously overqualified for such thinly written supporting roles. You have to assume they just wanted to work with Ms Foster.