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Where’s The Love For Flightplan?

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageThe critical consensus says that Red Eye is boss and Flightplan is a blast of projectile diarrhea into an open chest cavity during a triple-bypass — what gives?

Wes Craven holds degrees in writing and psychology from Wheaton College and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins. He apparently finagled some kind of deal to direct a straight drama and wound up with the earnest and well-reviewed Music of the Heart, which I have not seen because it looked kinda treacly – which is a pretentious non-word meaning I thought it looked like a chick-flicky movie filled with tearful scenes of grrr-eat ACT-ing! Wes Craven just directed the generally well-reviewed Red Eye, starring the oddly named Cillian Murphy as a sturdy bad guy and Rachel McAdams, who manages to be a credible female action hero while also being the most beautiful person alive.

Robert Schwenke is a German guy who directed some movies in Germany and probably spoken in German. I haven’t seen these movies, either, and no one has submitted an IMDb profile of this guy, who just directed the generally panned Flightplan, a blue-toned re-exploration of many of the themes of Panic Room. A brief Googling of Mr. Schwentke revealed that he studied at Columbia College and the AFI. Clearly this is a tissue of lies, seeing as how he is a German and cannot be trusted.

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OK, sorry. I’ll stop being insane and get back to comparing these two movies, one of which is receiving great reviews but was directed by someone whose reputation has suffered from being associated with slasher movies – Red Eye. The other, Flightplan, is clearly the work of a director more in control of his visual and aural environment, but which got panned critically. It opened big, and we here at CinCity will keep you appraised of its B.O. perf on our non-existent, updated-by-the-minute BoxOfficeUltraBonerBlog.

In any event, I’m surprised to see such disparate critical reactions to two takes on essentially the same story:

1. Bad guys royally fuck with woman on flight.
2. Woman kicks all kinds of ass.
3. Bad guys get killed.
4. No breasts shown.
5. Some dudes say stuff in Important Voices (Jack Scalia in Red Eye, Sean Bean in Flightplan.)
6. Middle-easterners get royally disparaged by frantic heroine, and then the innocent middle-easterner winds up apologizing to heroine at movie’s end. (OK, that only happens in Flightplan.)
7. You get right the fuck out of the theater and into your car in less than 90 minutes. That’s less time than I take to eat at Denny’s or to masturbate.

In short, these are two very similar movies, but the critical consensus says that Red Eye is boss and Flightplan is a blast of projectile diarrhea into an open chest cavity during a triple-bypass.

What the fuck is going on here?

I like both of these movies for different reasons, and believe it or not, Rachel McAdams’ hypnotic beauty played a small role in my liking of Red Eye, which succeeds by not fucking around. Ten minutes into Red Eye, Cillian Murphy’s terrorist bad guy turns to perfect Rachel and says, “I am a terrorist bad guy. Do the following things or we will kill your father, played by Brian Cox in the second most thankless role this year, the first being Sean Bean’s pilot in Flightplan.” The rest of the movie is nothing but plot and tense scheming leading up to a well-executed third act, which takes place off the plane and involves a freshly trach’ed Cillian Murphy dodging a field hockey stick being swung by Rachel McAdams’ flawless, alabastery arms of gorgeousness. Somewhere during the skulking behind smoothie bars and the ramming of Land Rovers into McMansions, Brian Cox shoots Cillian Murphy in the head.

This is great shit! Craven gave himself a career renaissance when he directed the damn-good meta-slasher Scream, which gave him the opportunity to direct Music of the Heart, which gave him the opportunity to direct the non-Vampire-in-Brooklyn-like substance Red Eye – and I’m delighted to see it. I again confess that I haven’t yet seen Music of the Heart, but Red Eye makes me want to see it. To me, Red Eye is just the kind of earnest, North by Northwest, non-supernatural thriller that every director who isn’t John Badham should be able to crank out at a moment’s notice. (No offense to Mr. Badham, but after Nick of Time, I’ve had quite enough of his workmanlike thrillers. Dude, what happened to Mr. Badham? I love WarGames and I love Point of No Return, the gaudy and guiltily delicious remake of La Femme Nikita.) Red Eye falls into the same category of solid, no-nonsense storytelling that Narrow Margin does. Remember that flick? The 1990 remake of the old B-movie The Narrow Margin? With Gene Hackman and Anne Archer? It was on a train? It had thrillery-type stuff and shenanigans going on the whole time until some bad lady got smashed in the back of the head by a tunnel? Red Eye falls into the same category and is a hoop through which every director, in my opinion, should sooner or later jump.

Hell, who knows what kind of career Wes Craven would have had if he hadn’t teamed up with the inestimable Sean S. Cunningham on the sex flick Together, starring no less than porn legend Marilyn Chambers? After that movie, both directors went on to crank out potboilers that got them both stuck in genre movies for most of their careers. Sean S. Cunningham went on to direct the first Friday the 13th movie, and even though he never directed another one (a wise move), he produced most of the sequels. As for directing, Cunningham has worked behind the camera on a few thrillers over the years (A Stranger is Watching, The New Kids), and also directed the undersea thriller Deep Star Six, which holds the dubious distinction of being an undersea thriller that isn’t The Abyss that made more money than Leviathan.


So, did you guys switch souls, too?


That said, where’s the love for Flightplan? It’s virtually the same movie, and it has a director more in tune with the senses. Why the tougher standards for it?

Here’s why: because Flightplan, by the very nature of its plot, puts itself into the same category as The Sixth Sense and Fight Club – though mostly Fight Club. The very trailer for the movie told us that Jodie Foster loses track of her daughter on the plane, and that she very well may have imagined her. Flightplan sets itself up as a reverse Fight Club, where we go into the movie suspecting that Foster’s character has an imaginary friend, but wonder if the little girl is actually real. Flightplan wisely chooses to make the little girl real, which propels the movie’s final act into more pedestrian territory, yes, but except for one key scene, Schwenke pulls it off perfectly.

What’s the one misstep? The reveal. Unfortunately, in a movie like Flightplan – a Hitchcockian, locked-door mystery – the reveal is the most important moment in the story, and Flightplan bungles it with two scenes of clumsy exposition, where the bad guys reveal in no uncertain terms who they are and what they want. One of these clumsy scenes is shot against a featureless black background – out of place in the movie’s otherwise blue and white color scheme – which makes me suspect that Schwenke shot the scene as a pickup at the behest of the studio.

Here’s the twist: The flight’s air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) kidnapped Foster’s daughter and hid her in the bowels of the plane. He then tells the captain (Sean Bean) that Foster’s character is a terrorist who is demanding a bunch of money. They reveal all this in two plodding scenes – when they should have revealed it to us at precisely the same time it’s revealed to Foster’s character. Why do I say this? Because to do so would have shown remarkable respect for the audience’s intelligence, and it would have lent the whole reveal sequence a creepy air of Lynchian discord and unease.

To wit: As the airline staff leaves the plane, Foster’s character asks the captain for more help searching the plane for her child. Keep in mind that by this point all has been revealed and we know the captain thinks Foster’s character is a terrorist.

The captain says, “Well, I can’t really say no, can I?”

It’s an OK moment, but I can’t help but think how much cooler it would have been if we had had no idea what was going on; if Schwenke and his staff had hit us with this line to disorient us, and then revealed to us the master plan at the same time Foster’s character put it together. (Incidentally, once she figures out that the air marshal has framed her as a terrorist, she starts to act the part. Tres cool!)

So, if we’re going to look at the movies on some kind of goofy empirical scale, Red Eye certainly does less wrong than Flightplan. Red Eye really has no missteps, while Flightplan screws up its own money shot.

Why, then, do I prefer Flightplan?

It reaches higher and farther. When it comes to any kind of art, I am hard-pressed to come down on an artistic Prometheus. I love hubris. It’s why I love AI: Artificial Intelligence so much. True, it fails as a traditional movie, but I’m delighted that this bizarre, posthumous collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg exists.

And besides that one flaw, Flightplan is a success. Schwenke controls his images and soundscapes with great skill – and his sound design is crucial. It’s so good it verges on Lynchian goodness. David Lynch can wring dread out of a static shot of a wall, and he does it all with lurking, moaning, creaking, keening sound design. Watch Mulholland Drive for great examples of scary Lynch walls. Schwenke’s sounds design is more primal, but it works. Early in the movie, Foster’s character loses track of her daughter in a crowded airport, and Schwenke amplifies the rumble of luggage wheels on tile until it sounds like a wild jungle animal; and then he throws in quick flashes of gaudy leopard print clothing to turn a normal airport into a wild and frightening place.

Furthermore, Schwenke constantly has figures stealing out of the frame just as a main character enters. He stretches phone cords perilously around corners to conceal important conversations. And he cast not only Peter Sarsgaard – one of the best actors working today – as his villain, but he also had the good sense to cast the preternaturally beautiful and bizarre-looking Kate Beahan as his accomplice. Beahan, with her owlish eyes, saturates every scene she’s in with dread. One scene has Sean Bean saying some important stuff, and Beahan simply stands behind him, her head peeking over his shoulder, bathed in shadow, her lamp-like eyes glaring at us. Her presence adds more than any sound cue or clever camera trick.

I admire Red Eye for its commitment to plot and storytelling, but I prefer Flightplan because of the greater chances it takes, and for its nightmarish atmosphere. Hitchcock may have sniffed at Flightplan’s clumsy reveal, but he would have applauded its commitment to suspenseful shenanigans.