It is rare when a Hollywood thriller can glue us to our seats. These days, big budget films in this genre are too concerned with creating big action set-pieces meant to be eye candy, rather than crafting smart and interesting situations where the tension comes out of the moment and the characters. Therefore, the best thrillers usually come from the independent or the foreign film worlds.
German filmmaker Patrick Vollrath’s latest film, the in-flight thriller “7500,” is a near-perfect example of how to make a thriller using one location, a tight-run time, and one well-drawn character.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tobias Ellis, an American pilot on an international flight from Germany to Paris who is forced to lock himself inside the cockpit as hijackers try to take over the plane.
Shot entirely inside the cockpit, Vollrath’s inventive direction assures us this is no mere gimmick but instead the claustrophobic space allows his audience to feel every moment of terrified stress that Tobias must endure. In his handling of these scenes, the director shows complete authority over his film and its many twists and turns.
Tobias and his Captain (Carlo Kitzlinger) prepare their plane for take-off in what is a quite interesting set up. We see the routine, yet important, preparations and watch the two men go through their checklist with precision. The film doesn’t give the two men cliched dialogue and, while they do make small talk prepping the flight, there is nothing phony to the moment. It all seems natural as Tobias chats with the flight attendant (Aylin Tezel), who is also the mother of his child. They talk about finding a new house while we hear the tower getting them ready for their journey.
Everything seems business as usual until terrorists break into the cockpit. The men brandish broken glass from bottles purchased pre-flight. There is a struggle which wounds both pilots. Tobias manages to knock out one terrorist and buckle him into a seat. This gives him a somewhat false sense of security, as he feels he has regained control of the plane. But there are two more men outside trying to get in. They are out there with the passengers and flight crew and are threatening to kill people until Tobias unlocks the door.
While airplane thrillers are almost their own subgenre, Patrick Vollrath (who co-wrote the film with Senad Halilbasic) keeps his film gripping and innovative.
The cockpit perspective is a masterstroke for this kind of film. There are no establishing shots of the plane from the outside, no pans down the aisles of the cabin, and we never get to meet the passengers. It ALL happens inside the cockpit. What we do see is on a small television screen behind the pilots that allows them to see outside the door.
Tobias has nowhere to go. If he opens the door, he and his crew and passengers will die. If he refuses, people will be killed. All he can do is try to bring the plane down safely and save as many lives as he can.
The tension begins almost immediately once the plane takes flight and is ratcheted up scene by scene until it is almost too much to bear. The attack is abrupt and terrifying. As with the pilots, there is no time to think with the standoff between pilots and hijackers becoming more frenzied by the moment.
Vollrath and his cinematographer Sebastian Thaler are forced to shoot tight using many closeups of Levitt and letting the audience see only through the small television screen and the main windows that show the impending danger of the city lights in the distance as the plane is in its descent.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a commanding performance in which he balances his dutifulness with a sheer desperation. His character is in control throughout the entire film… almost. There is a moment which I cannot reveal, where we are not sure if Tobias is allowing control to be taken from him or if he is just tricking someone to think he has relinquished it.
Levitt’s excellent performance shows a man on the verge of complete hopelessness who manages to find a courage that perhaps he did not know he had. But what Tobias does is not instant heroism. It is done out of duty and fear and an extremely dangerous situation that he could have never imagined he would be facing. This is not a “Die Hard on a plane” type of film and Tobias is far from a cliched macho man. Through tight shooting and Levitt’s commanding performance, we are all Tobias and none of us know what to do.
After a riveting opening and intense middle, the film takes an unexpected turn in its final act. Again, spoilers will not allow me to reveal what happens, but the final moments take the film to a more personal area and hopefully dispel any accusations of stereotyping regarding the portrayal of the hijackers.
“7500” is a smart and accomplished thriller that does not waste a single moment and refuses to insult its audience. Director Patrick Vollrath proves that he knows how to make good on that oft-used term, “Hitchcockian.” I anxiously await his next film.