In “Flightplan,” Jodie Foster plays a real mother of a mother who will stop at nothing to save her little girl.
It's the sort of mile-high concept thriller that starts well but enters a rapid descent, demanding little of the two-time Oscar winner apart from endless emotive close-ups and a slew of mad dashes though an extremely large fuselage.
That said, few actresses know how to make a face like our Jodie. In the film's first and most memorable shot, we find bereaved widow Kyle Pratt (Foster) sitting on a lonely train platform in Berlin, grappling with the recent death of her husband. As cold grief pools in Foster's pale, brittle features, she seems to freeze before our eyes, rendering her motionless and sphinxlike. (And maybe a little crazy-looking, no?) Somberly, Kyle loads 6-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) onto an ultra-modern jumbo jet bound for America, with her husband's casket in the hold.
After a nap, she awakens to find that Julia has disappeared. Strangely, none of the crew or passengers remembers seeing the child. Alarmingly, there's no record of Julia on the manifest. Either Kyle is the victim of some horrible conspiracy, or quite off her bean, the poor girl.
Naturally, screenwriters Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) offer ample evidence in support of the latter. For starters, Julia is agoraphobic, always hiding in corners and ducking under her mother's coat, which seems a terribly convenient affliction for an imaginary child.
Then there's the lack of a boarding pass and the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about-you-crazy-lady look that a cabbie shoots Kyle on the way to the airport. German director Robert Schwentke — who won directing duties, bizarrely, on the strength of his testicular-cancer comedy “The Family Jewels” (2003) — capably scatters these details in Kyle's path like shards of glass, creating (momentarily, anyway) a suspenseful tribute to Hitchcock's “The Lady Vanishes” (1938).
Foster (“The Silence of the Lambs”) makes for an intriguing variable — seemingly hysterical one moment, lucid and sensible the next — as Kyle leads a frantic search of the airplane, spooking the passengers and making hardened skeptics of the captain (Sean Bean from “The Island”) and an undercover air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard from “Boys Don't Cry”).
Complicating matters is the fact that Kyle — an aviation engineer — helped design the plane and can expertly navigate its Death Star-like dimensions and sundry crawl spaces.
It would never do to spoil the ending, but if “Flightplan” did prove itself to be a depressingly contrived aggrieved-woman thriller, it would probably be the type where Kyle ultimately finds herself in a physical predicament strongly reminiscent of Foster's “Panic Room” (2002) and, later, pursued by her bloodied, limping tormentor in a manner almost identical to summer's schlockier but somehow more satisfying “Red Eye.”
And therein lies the problem with “Flightplan” as a showcase of Foster's talents: There's no real arc to this character. It's less a performance than a medley of poster-friendly facial expressions. At least “Panic Room” had something resembling an evolving dynamic between mother and daughter. This time, it's just Foster, and a lavish if hollow spectacle of non-acting.