Grade: D

Jodie Foster’s new damsel-in-a-dither movie seems so close to her last suspenser that one might wonder whether it’s called “Flightplan” only because “Panic Cabin” falls so uneasily on the ear. Though the plot plays out in the sky rather than a small earthbound room, once again the star gets all anguished and excited trying to protect her daughter. Only this time mother and child aren’t locked in a safe-like cubicle in a house invaded by thieves; they’re on a magnificent new passenger aircraft the woman has helped design, and the problem is that the girl has disappeared during flight. The question: where is she? Or, more pointedly, is she anywhere at all? Because as the plane roars onward, it’s revealed that according to ordinarily unimpeachable sources, the girl died several days before. Was she just the hallucination of an unhinged grieving parent? Or is there something more sinister afoot?

Many viewers are likely to compare this movie with “Red Eye” simply because they’re both thrillers played mostly aloft, but “Flightplan” is actually more reminiscent of the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner played a mentally-troubled fellow terrified at the sight of a gremlin tearing apart one of the engines of the plane on which he was flying, and unable to convince anybody else of the creature’s existence. (Richard Matheson’s tale was remade–very well–by George Miller as one part of the 1983 “Twilight Zone” movie, with John Lithgow succeeding Shatner.) Both are about paranoia–or possible paranoia–in the not-so-friendly skies.

But the old “Twilight Zone” differed from this movie in three important respects. First, it was only a half-hour long; “Flightplan” is three times that. Second, the TV show moved briskly; though the movie’s relatively short for a feature, it’s so sluggishly directed by Robert Schwentke (who seems to take this potboiler seriously) that it seems to go on forever. And finally, the film is far less credible than the old show, even though the latter was about an imaginary creature ripping apart a plane in mid-air. The first half of “Flightplan,” which depicts mother and child coming slowly to grips with their family tragedy, boarding the aircraft and getting separated, may be funereally paced, but it does generate a chilly sense that something is amiss and some modest tension. But at the forty-five minute mark or so, the movie takes a turn that strains credibility way past the breaking point; as the movie changes course to become a cat-and-mouse chase flick, it grows so preposterous that you not only have to put your brain on hold but remove it from your skull, toss it to the floor and stomp it into insensibility. Simply put, the script links together a conspiratorial chain so long and so ludicrous that by the close it’s reached jaw-dropping status. And by adding maternal love, mawkish sentimentality and ethnic reconciliation to the final act, it becomes bathetic as well as incredibly dumb.

Under the circumstances Jodie Foster does the best she can as Kyle Pratt, the woman at the center of this tempest of nonsense. She manages the motherly anxiety well enough, and when things call for her to get physical, she runs like a champion sprinter, crawls through small spaces adeptly, and throws a mighty punch. It’s a pity her talent is once again put at the service of such second-rate material. As the air marshal who jumps into the fray when Kyle goes ballistic, however, the talented Peter Sarsgaard is a disappointment. As in the recent “Skeleton Key,” he relies too heavily on his ease at conveying an air of slightly sinister good-naturedness; it’s as though he were on autopilot. The only other performers of much consequence are Sean Bean, who makes a stalwart flight captain; Erika Christensen and Kate Beahan, as properly cool flight attendants; and Marlene Lawston, who’s appropriately ethereal as the perhaps-ghostly child. On the technical side “Flightplan” is a quality product, with an elegant production design by Alexander Hammond and appropriately atmospheric photography by Florian Ballhaus. But James Horner’s score is at best workmanlike, and especially in the last reel the visual effects are less than impressive and the editing by Thom Noble goes slack.

In the end “Flightplan” turns out to be yet another example of an intriguing premise that goes haywire–a clever idea with a payoff that’s more like a dull thud. The picture has enough trouble just lifting off, but the real problem is that it crashes and burns long before landing. If you want to take a ride in the cinematic skies, get a seat on “Red Eye” instead. It may be just as silly as this movie, but Wes Craven at least knows how to pilot his way past the plot holes and keep his passengers pleased.