The "Die Hard on an airplane" concept has been tried several times before, from Passenger 57 to the recent Red Eye, and the main challenge has always been space: How can bad guys and good guys play cat-and-mouse when the aisles are crammed by drink service carts and there's no exit at 30,000 feet? The ruthlessly economical Red Eye solved this problem by enhancing the claustrophobia: With its heroine pinned in a window seat, her options are limited. Flightplan attempts the more audacious possibility of a kidnapping in the main cabin, where presumably no one can hide (or be hidden) without virtually being in someone's lap. But the film cheats by setting the action on a luxury, two-decker transcontinental airbus, which might as well be as Die Hard's Nakatomi Plaza with all its air ducts, stowaway areas, and other little nooks and crannies. And to diminish the suspense even further, protagonist Jodie Foster designs airplanes for a living, so she knows her way around better than anyone and she even understands emergency procedure better than most of the crew. At no time does the situation seem out of her control, even when she may well be crazy.
After her husband dies suddenly in an accident, a traumatized Foster and her six-year-old daughter take a plane from Berlin to New York for the funeral. Long into the flight, Foster falls asleep and wakes up to discover that her daughter has gone missing, but the passengers and stewardesses are more than just unable to attest to the kid's whereabouts; they don't even remember Foster bringing her on the plane. When the revelation surfaces that the child was not included on the official passenger list, there's growing suspicion that the abduction was the delusional product of Foster's grief. Her only apparent allies are Peter Sarsgaard, a plainspoken air marshal who leads the search, and captain Sean Bean, who allows for a full search in spite of his doubts.
Is there a conspiracy afoot or has Foster lost her mind? There's not much doubt on the answer to that question, but director Robert Schwentke still piles on the reaction shots of crew members giving her the stink eye. When the big twist finally arrives in the second act, the grand design turns out to be pretty ingenious, though it relies on such an improbable sequence of events to take place that it might as well have coincided with a lunar eclipse. But coming on the heels of Red Eye, which is nothing if not an efficient thrill machine, Flightplan can only look conspicuously flat by comparison, lacking anything close to Cillian Murphy's opaque, menacing blue-eyed gaze or Rachel McAdam's plucky resourcefulness. It's the kind of disposable entertainment that would be perfect for a TransAtlantic flight, if it didn't already take place on one.