Learning to read by age three, mastering French by 14, winning her first Academy Award at 26 and backing it up with another at 29, Jodie Foster really can do it all. But can she save a grim, shadowy airplane thriller with shades of Hitchcock from the unholy clutches of predictable plot twists, moronic villains and mostly mediocre supporting performances? The answer is an emphatic yes: “Flightplan” soars above its flaws thanks to the grit, skill and grace of its star.

Film Reviews
“Take me to your leader.” (Courtesy of Touchstone)

Kyle Pratt (Foster) is an aeronautical engineer stationed in Berlin. Through flashbacks, we learn that she has recently lost her husband to a tragic “accident,” and along with her daughter, she boards a plane to escort her husband’s body back to the United States to be buried. Oh, but this isn’t just any aircraft. It’s the huge, new Big Bertha of a plane that Kyle helped design – with two floors, a bar and about 600 flat-screen TVs (kind of like a GameWorks with wings). But aboard this Titanic of the sky, a sinister plot involving the disappearance of Kyle’s daughter is only the beginning.

“Flightplan” has probably the most intriguing first 40 minutes of any film this year; the gray, melancholy, understated tone is set from the first scene. Despite the release of its equally well-made sister film (“Red Eye”) earlier this year, the movie proves to be just as thrilling and even more rewarding than its predecessor. The confined-space setting is also similar to the one Foster dominated in 2002’s “Panic Room,” but despite the loss of visual magician David Fincher (“Se7en”), the film distinguishes itself nicely from that movie as well.

Never at any point in the film is the audience left in a lull. The action is absolutely nonstop, though not wildly overdone as in other recent thrillers. Contrary to what this film’s poorly made trailer suggests, Kyle does not spend the whole flight simply running around like a maniac; she actually portrays a sense of forced calm and more alertness than despair, and this makes her situation feel genuinely heartwrenching.

The film’s predictability should be expected by now, but Foster infuses so much flair and charisma into the story that we forget how impossibly pathetic the villainous plot of the film really is. Despite its drawbacks, young director Robert Schwentke deserves credit for setting a tone that is perfect for his story and character – understated, with just the right amount old-fashioned charm (complete with the classic German dialogue at the beginning).

As far as Foster goes in saving the film, it still could not have been done without the brilliantly subtle performance of supporting-actor extraordinaire Sean Bean (“The Island”). After bigger roles like Mr. Carson the air marshal and Stephanie the flight attendant collapse miserably under the weight of their over-the-top performances, Bean’s Captain Rich steps up and gives instant credibility to the fast-sinking plot.

The film ends the only way it possibly could, and though it’s predictable, the stark imagery of the finale is powerful, even touching. Playing only her second major role in the past six years, Foster proves she has not lost a beat and has grown even more as an actress. She became a queen of horror with her Oscar-winning performance in “Silence of the Lambs,” and with this compelling performance, she has conquered the thriller genre as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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