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Three years ago, Jodie Foster delivered one of the most memorable performances of her career in Panic Room. There, she played a damsel-in-distress whose maternal instincts inspire super-human heroics to save her diabetic daughter from three inscrutable intruders who break into their New York brownstone with intentions which are difficult to discern. Directed by David Fincher with an attention to detail reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, that taut, psychological thriller landed on this critic’s annual 10 Best List for 2002.

Given Hollywood’s risk-averse nature, it is no surprise to find Foster now being asked to reprise that role in Flightplan, a thinly-veiled variation on Panic Room’s proven, female empowerment theme. But instead of her character being recently-divorced and just moving into a new home in Manhattan, here, she is recently-widowed and flying back to New York from Germany.

So, instead of having its heroine trapped inside of her house, this flick features action entirely unfolding inside of the equally-claustrophobic confines of a commercial jet airliner cruising at 37,000 feet. Still, despite an abundance of such superficial similarities, Flightplan simply fails to measure up to Panic Room in terms of offering a worthwhile cinematic experience.

Where Panic had a riveting plot, palpable tension and a satisfying payoff, this retread is ruined by a Swiss cheese storyline, an absence of urgency, and a disappointing resolution riddled with lousy red herrings. Yet, despite the fact that Flightplan fails to measure up, it is not entirely unwatchable, because the veteran Foster is a good enough actress to elevate the mediocre material she had to work with to an acceptable level.

At the point of departure, we find Kyle Pratt (Foster) in Berlin, but making arrangements to accompany her husband’s casket to the United States. Between an ever-ominous soundtrack and shots of shadowy figures lurking at every turn, we are hit with not-so-subtle hints that something sinister is in the air.

Kyle and her six year-old, Julia (Marlene Lawston), board the plane, oblivious to any imminent danger. Soon after take-off, the exhausted mom falls asleep, leaving her energetic kid to occupy herself. But when she awakens, her little girl is nowhere to be seen. Kyle’s concern escalates after a futile search of the aisles, seats and bathrooms.

The mystery takes on an otherworldly tone when it turns out that none of the crew or other passengers remembers ever even seeing Julie. Worse, she isn’t listed on the manifest. Thus, what looked like a straightforward whodunit becomes complicated by the question of whether this all might be a figment of Kyle’s imagination. Did Julia also perish in the accident which claimed the life of her father? Or is some diabolical scheme afoot to make her mom look like she’s lost her mind.

Lucky for Kyle, she happens to be a jet propulsion engineer and knows the blueprint of this aircraft like the back of her hand. This enables her to roam the remote regions of the plane in quest of clues, at least as long as she can elude an annoyed air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) intent on handcuffing and sedating his unhinged passenger. Despite a promising premise, Flightplan crash lands following a preposterous, almost comical, turn of events.

Good (2 stars)
Rating: PG-13 for violence and intense tension.
Running time: 93 minutes
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures

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