Directed by Robert Schwentke

Buena Vista Pictures

3.5 Stars

I know what you’re thinking—Jodie Foster running franticly through a tightly confined space, driven only by a furious maternal instinct to protect her daughter: I saw this one already, back when it was called “Panic Room.” Well, maybe, but that’s not reason enough to skip “Flightplan,” especially since the formula’s been retooled and improved upon.

A modern Hitchcockian thriller with style and grace, “Flightplan” is set in a not-so-distant future ruled by streamlined aesthetic minimalism. The film begins in a stark, frozen Berlin where Kyle Pratt (Foster), an emotionally drained aeronautical engineer, boards a luxurious double-decker airplane. Accompanied by her traumatized young daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), Kyle is traveling to New York to return the body of her husband, who died unexpectedly under suspicious circumstances.

At 30,000 feet, mother and daughter are separated. Lots of frantic searching and intense, emotionally charged dialogue ensue. Soon, Kyle’s sanity comes into question as everyone around her begins to doubt that Julia ever boarded the plane at all. Mistrusted by both the flight’s reserved but compassionate captain (Sean Bean) and its reticent Air Marshal, Carson (Peter Sarsgaard, in a well-executed performance), Kyle is left to struggle alone.

Foster, channeling the role that she honed in “Silence of the Lambs,” radiates the taut energy and strained composure of a woman possessed, teetering capriciously on the brink of her own sanity. However, Foster occasionally overshoots the intensity of her performance, and the earnestness of her emoting occasionally borders on the hyper-frantic: she clenches her jaw a little too tightly and relies a bit too heavily on her staple big-eyes-welling-up-with-tears expressions.

Skillfully directed by Robert Schwentke, “Flightplan” is most memorable for its lovely, long shots and overall elegant framings that recall the sort of compositions Hitchcock often favored.

But aesthetic unity alone cannot answer the obvious question—mainly, how can you pull off a fast-paced thriller when almost all of the film’s action occurs in the claustrophobic confines of an airplane? The suspense in “Flightplan” lies in its subtleties—in its application of fast-moving cuts and disjunctive editing. The quietest moments of stillness, soft cues of music and whispers, and Foster’s restlessness project as much tension and charged anxiety as any proliferation of explosion-powered chase sequences might.

Artistic poise aside, you can’t help but ask if “Flightplan”—a film that dares to incorporate the association of airplanes and terrorism in a post 9/11 world—has some underlying agenda of social commentary? After an entire summer of allegory-laced big-budget action features with socio-political subtext, it’s refreshing to find a smart movie with no aspirations to social relevancy.

Following quickly on the heels of another aeronautical thriller, “Red Eye,” “Flightplan” represents a new incarnation of the in-flight thriller, one that must contend with the public’s knee-jerk connections to recent historical realities. But “Flightplan” works so well precisely because it refuses to get bogged down in prevailing American biases.

By subversively toying with them instead, the film is able to recuperate the possibility of once again exploring issues of hijacking—both on the symbolic level of one’s own psyche and emotions, and on the more physical level of a plane-load of passengers—without making it anything more than an engrossing diversion, and, as such, staying safely within the realm of blockbuster Hollywood cinema.