"Flightplan": Fasten your seatbelt for a rocky ride

In the new Jodie Foster thriller "Flightplan," everything proceeds smoothly and efficiently for a while ... and then, alas, things get mired in what I'll call the Mopping the Floor Quandary. You know it, because we've all done it: You're cleaning the kitchen floor, making it all nice and sparkly, and suddenly you realize that you've mopped yourself into a corner and there's no easy escape. You can sit in that corner and wait for the floor to dry, which is no fun, or you can leave footprints all over your clean floor as you escape, thus creating more work for yourself, not to mention a mess.

In "Flightplan," the marks of the mop are all too visible. And it's too bad, because the first half of the movie is quite promising. Director Robert Schwentke (a German filmmaker, in his first English-language project) finds a nice sense of forboding, and in Foster he has an actress perfectly capable of conveying grief, fear and trembling-on-the-edge instability in a single glance.

Foster plays Kyle, a distraught recent widow on a trans-Atlantic flight with her young daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston). After waking from a nap on the dark plane, Kyle can't find Julia. She searches the plane for the child, enlisting the flight crew (which includes former Seattleite Erika Christensen as an earnest flight attendant) to help her, and soon appears caught in a waking nightmare. Nobody has any recollection of ever seeing Julia, and her name does not appear on the passenger list. Her backpack and boarding pass have disappeared, and an increasingly unhinged Kyle becomes convinced that something terrible has happened to her daughter midflight — while everyone else seems sure that Julia was never on the plane at all.

This is a nifty little premise, the sort of thing Hitchcock might have had fun with, and for a while "Flightplan" is an elegant exploration of a mother's hell. But Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray's screenplay loses its momentum when it gets stuck in a corner and changes course midstream. For the first two-thirds of the film or so, we're experiencing the story entirely from Kyle's point of view: The camera shows us what she sees, and we don't hear what she doesn't hear (like the whispers among the flight attendants). Foster is in every scene, and her performance is interesting enough to keep us onboard. Is Kyle unhinged by grief, or is she our voice of sanity on a flight where everyone else has gone mad?

But when the film leaves Kyle and begins charting the rather implausible actions of others on the plane, "Flightplan" leaves Hitchcock territory and becomes just another thriller with too much plot. By the end, you're piecing together various holes in the story, while Dowling and Ray mop furiously to cover their tracks, and Schwentke gives us an impressive tour of the innards of a very large airliner (which often resembles the Starship Enterprise).

The film is especially disappointing because the talented Foster so rarely makes movies these days. With the exception of her haunting cameo in "A Very Long Engagement," this is her first film since 2002's "Panic Room," another thriller in which Foster played the protective mother of a young daughter. She singlehandedly keeps "Flightplan" watchable, but surely this multiple Oscar winner can aspire to better than this.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Flightplan," with Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Erika Christensen, Kate Beahan, Sean Bean, Marlene Lawston. Directed by Robert Schwentke, from a screenplay by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray. 88 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence and some intense plot material. Several theaters.