Sep 28, 2005 at 12:00 am

Jodie Foster’s latest suspense thriller isn’t going to be an in-flight movie anytime soon. In 93 short minutes, Flightplan manages to exploit every air-travel anxiety Americans have had since 9/11 — passenger fistfights, undercover air marshals, racial profiling, shoe-bomber-style explosives and supposedly bulletproof cockpit doors. All the hot-button issues are lined up like dominoes by director Robert Schwentke; whether you take any thrill in watching them all topple depends on your own tolerance for being shamelessly manipulated by blockbuster thrillers.

The previews intentionally call to mind Foster’s last desperate-mom-in-a-confined-space flick, Panic Room: She boards an airplane with her adorable daughter, the kid goes missing, and a manic Foster goes all commando in a daring attempt to get her back. What the previews don’t indicate is that, for at least its first hour, Flightplan is more deliberate and old-fashioned eerie than the brutally effective Panic Room.

Foster’s character, Kyle, has just experienced the death of her husband in Berlin. An upper-class airplane engineer, she’s still trying to get a handle on her grief when she loads the coffin and her shell-shocked 6-year-old Julia (Marlene Lawston) onto a mammoth airliner for an overnight flight to New York. Kyle takes a nap and wakes up to find Julia missing; the crew of the plane is mostly unsympathetic, especially when Kyle can’t produce any evidence but a teddy bear to show that her daughter got on the plane in the first place. So begins an extensive is-she-nuts storyline, in which Kyle, with the help of a silky-voiced air marshal (the always-reliable Peter Sarsgaard), tries to convince the pilot to give her access to all the places in the plane a tiny girl could conceivably crawl into.

It goes without saying there’s a big, preposterous twist or two, and although the script does a fairly good job of explaining the who, what and how of the plot, it’s extremely weak on why. Since most of the setup involves psychological terror — creepy visions, mind games, battles of will — it’s more than a little disappointing when the movie shifts over into Die Hard mode, with Foster scampering through ductwork and using improvised weaponry.

Flightplan is a handsome, glossy production, and the actors are faultless; it’s clear that Foster can and will perform a role like this in her sleep. But when a movie contorts itself into a logistical pretzel just to throw off the audience, or when it deliberately evokes details of the 9/11 hijackers, it crosses the line from popcorn entertainment into queasy exploitation. At one point, Foster’s character screams, “I don’t give a shit about being politically incorrect!” It might as well be the filmmakers talking.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].