One of the tools Alfred Hitchcock used to "thrill" us was putting his characters into situations they were not physically able to leave. Lifeboat placed his cast in a small craft floundering on the ocean, while in Rear Window Jimmy Stewart's lame character was confined to his stifling apartment. The creators of Flightplan have tapped this effective method of engaging the audience by providing a similar sense of containment and adding a missing child to the roster.
As a propulsion engineer, Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) has an intimate knowledge of the E-474 plane she is flying on to return to the United States. The huge two-level futuristic (and fictional) craft is the largest in the air, and the nearly 500 people aboard still aren't enough to fill every seat. Unfortunately for Kyle, her ride isn't for pleasure. Instead, she is accompanying her late husband's body for stateside burial after a tragic accident took his life outside their home in Berlin.
Joining her on the journey is her young daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston), a precocious six-year-old who tends to wander. Finally getting the child to rest after takeoff, the weary mother also closes her eyes. Three hours later she wakes up and realizes Julia is gone. Immediately fearing the worst, Kyle's possessive personality kicks in, and she begins searching the cavernous jet. Unable to find her daughter, she pleads with the flight attendant staff to employ the captain's assistance. Hearing the desperate pleas of the mother, who has no proof her daughter was ever on the flight (her boarding pass is gone and her name is not on the manifest), Captain Rich (Sean Bean) awakens the sleepy cabin and orders everyone to take their original seat.
Still, after a complete scouring of the plane, the child cannot be found. Becoming even more frantic and starting to make accusations against a fellow passenger of Arab descent, Captain Rich assigns Air Marshal Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard) to keep the woman confined to her seat, which doesn't turn out to be an easy job. With a complete understanding of every nook and cranny of the airliner, Kyle continues to evade Carson and the Captain in an attempt to continue her anxious hunt.
While Foster holds star position in this film, perhaps the greatest performance was off-camera. The set design of this fantastic aircraft contributes as much to the movie's environment and believability as does the acting and script. Built on a monstrous soundstage, the two levels of the plane never existed at the same time during production, yet the final result is a seamless realism, with the characters chasing each other up and down the spiral staircase.
As for family viewing, the story generates peril primarily by using dialogue and paranoia. The most positive message is the focused determination of Foster's character, which explicitly portrays the powerful love between a mother and child. The film also questions our tendency to believe what we are told, and the new "secure" Post-9/11 world in which we live.
Only a few mild and moderate profanities are scattered throughout, along with a veiled implication two crew members have used a storage compartment for "other" activities. That leaves the primary content concerns in the violence category, which includes hand-to-hand conflict such as pushing and yelling, some gunshots and the tension of a bomb scare.
Certainly captivating, parents will likely be comfortable having their older teens join this flight.