The little lady vanishes.
She's a 6-year-old who bears more than a striking resemblance to Miss Froy, the lady who vanished in Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 suspense thriller. In "The Lady Vanishes" -- that definitive example of taut, witty storytelling -- the conveyance on which she inexplicably disappeared was a train. In "Flightplan," the vehicle has been updated -- quite smartly -- to a jumbo jet, with all sorts of compartments, holds, bays, closets and hidey-holes for a little kid to crawl into.
For most of its 90-minute running time, the movie quite effectively gives viewers the impression of being on that plane, as Jodie Foster -- playing the little girl's desperate mother -- tries to lead her fellow passengers in a search. Striking just the right balance between claustrophobia and vast, terrifying expanse, the young German director Robert Schwentke ratchets up the tension with good taste and quiet, unfussy skill. It all falls apart with the Big Reveal, whose florid improbability is completely at odds with the stylish, tightly controlled realism that has gone before. But until those final moments, "Flightplan" succeeds admirably, both as a sophisticated psychological thriller and as an example of, if not great art, then superb craftsmanship.
Foster plays Kyle Pratt, a recent widow who with her daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), is flying from Berlin to New York with her husband's remains. Julia happens to be a propulsion engineer, which is why, when she awakens from a nap to discover that Julia has wandered off, she can tell the crew exactly where to look for the child; she knows the plane, as she puts it, nose to tail. When their searches prove fruitless, Kyle enlists the help of the plane's by-the-book captain (Sean Bean) and a fellow passenger named Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), who are at first solicitous, then suspicious, of the woman's increasingly erratic behavior.
There's a chance, of course, that Kyle's grief has loosened her grip on reality, and there's a very real possibility that she never brought Julia on the plane; there's also a possibility that the crew and her fellow passengers are in on some kind of plot to gaslight the bereaved woman, an ambiguity that Schwentke exploits with subtle finesse. If you've been on an international flight recently, you've been on this plane, with its coolly contemptuous flight attendants, its boorish Americans, its cottony, muffled air of anxiety. Post-9/11 paranoia suffuses "Flightplan" like a dread perfume, finally making itself visible when Kyle confronts a pair of Middle Eastern passengers. Viewers are never quite sure whom to root for, or whom to believe.
Except, of course, we always root for and believe Jodie Foster, who once again proves to be one of the smartest, most watchable and most sympathetic actresses of her generation, one of the few out there who can project both vulnerability and strength, which come into play with equal intensity here. With the mother-and-daughter-in-jeopardy setup of "Panic Room" and the lighting of "Contact," "Flightplan" is a classic Foster film -- classy, no-nonsense and, because she's in it, to be forgiven for its climactic excesses (there's a scene at the end that could have been lifted, step for step, from Robert Altman's movie "The Player," made all the more mawkish by James Horner's schmaltzy score).
Foster is joined by an excellent supporting cast, many of whom aren't well known, which gives "Flightplan" an added sense of plausibility. But by far her most compelling co-star is the plane itself, a sleek airborne luxury liner that Schwentke and production designer Alec Hammond have conceptualized with care and elegant postmodern style. As luxe as the accommodations are above-decks, when the proceedings take viewers into the plane's cavernous storage and operational sections, the effect is terrifying in its emptiness and silence.
From its clever sequence of opening credits to its assured sense of design, tone, pacing and spatial logic, "Flightplan" is clearly the work of an adroit filmmaker, someone capable of infusing what would otherwise be an overheated genre exercise with steady, understated dexterity. Schwentke is a director to watch; along with his countryman Oliver Hirschbiegel ("The Downfall," "The Experiment") and Hungary-based newcomer Nimrod Antal ("Kontroll"), he suggests that Old Europe may offer hope for a new -- or at least reinvigorated -- cinema.
Flightplan (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and plot material.