German director Robert Schwentke’s cynical attempt to manipulate post-9/11 air travel anxiety into a kind of soccer mom thriller grates on the nerves. It also makes Jody Foster into a standard-bearer for a peculiar archetype: the pre-menopausal female heroine who’ll do whatever it takes to protect her daughter (see “Panic Room”). Kyle Pratt (Foster) is a Berlin-based avionics engineer whose husband dies under mysterious circumstances. Determined to take daughter Julia back to her grandparents in the United States, she boards a New York-bound flight on a giant Alto Airlines A474 (an imagined stand-in for the Airbus A380). When Julia vanishes from her seat, the terrified Pratt goes ballistic and demands the crew’s assistance.
First, air marshal Carson (Peter Sarsgaard) intervenes and cuffs her. Then, after a ludicrous search, she’s told Julia actually perished with her husband in the “suicide” fall. So begins a clumsy foray into hysteria, racial stereotyping, and SFX visuals reminding you just how big a big plane can get (oh yes, Pratt helped design it). Pity. For 40 minutes, Schwentke pretends to make a Hitchcock-vein “vanished” movie in which grief and hallucination do their typical shadow dance. Called to make good on the promise, Schwentke moves painfully from the improbable to the unbearable.