You hear a lot of complaining, and rightly so, about Hollywood's tendency to churn out safe, unimaginative pabulum--the remakes, the sequels, the blow-everything-up movies. Less remarked upon is the opposite problem: The studios' inability (or unwillingness) to make B+ movies, competent, mid-sized genre films that are formulaic in the good sense. There was a time when Hollywood excelled at producing such solid but unexceptional fare--Westerns are the classic example--but no longer. These days, almost every movie needs to have a special hook, a tease, something that will make it new and different and (in theory) better. No one wants a base hit; it's all about swinging for the bleachers.
The reason is clear enough. Back in the late 1940s, when Randolph Scott was making three or four cowboy movies a year, two-thirds of Americans went to the movies during any given week. They didn't need a reason; it was just part of the routine, and as long as the film was moderately diverting they generally felt they got their money's worth. But TV watching has been gradually replacing film attendance for decades, and today, with our ever-expanding array of at-home alternatives (satellite, DVD, pay-per-view, TiVo), just 10 percent of us go to the movies each week. If we weren't actively lured with the promise of something fresh and remarkable--a more radical twist (the lady detective is also the serial killer!), wilder stunt (two helicopters collide in the Lincoln Tunnel!), or bigger star (Russell Crowe as Stephen Hawking!)--we might not go at all.
Which brings me to Red Eye and Flightplan, two late-summer entertainments just released on video. On the surface they could hardly be more alike: Both feature smart female protagonists who, in the midst of innocent airline trips, find themselves enmeshed in elaborate terrorist plots that threaten the lives of their family members. The two even share Hitchcockian affectations: Red Eye could easily have been titled Strangers on a Plane, while Flightplan aspires to be The Little Lady Vanishes. But the similarities end there. Red Eye is a great example of the vanishing breed of B+ genre movies: smart but modest, an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours if not a terribly memorable one. Flightplan, by contrast, is an excellent reminder of all the things that can go wrong with Hollywood's operating premise that bigger will be better.
Red Eye is the increasingly rare studio release that was written entirely by one screenwriter, TV veteran Carl Ellsworth, and it shows. The plot is straightforward and all of a piece, with none of the narrative discursions or tonal shifts or elaborate backstories that often appear when one writer's work is "juiced up" by another. Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is a twentysomething luxury-hotel manager preparing to fly home to Miami after attending her grandmother's funeral in Dallas. We get a glimpse of her poise and intelligence when, on her way to the airport, her cell phone rings and she has to talk a panicked subordinate through an encounter with difficult hotel guests. ("There are no guests who are assholes," she explains, "only guests with special needs.") Her flight is delayed, but in the ticket line she meets a pleasant young man named Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy). The two cross paths again at the airport bar, where they pass the time with conversation and cocktails. They seem to hit it off: Is he interested in her?
He is, though not in the way she supposes. When the plane finally boards, lo and behold, they have cozily adjacent seats. In the air, they chat some more. When she asks what he does for a living, he responds, "government overthrows, flashy, high-profile assassinations, the usual." It's not a joke. He proceeds to explain that the deputy secretary of Homeland Security will shortly be arriving at her hotel. He would like her to call and change the suite the secretary will be staying in to a more vulnerable one. If she doesn't, he will phone an associate and give him the order to kill her father (Brian Cox). As evidence that this can be done, he displays her father's wallet, pilfered from his bureau earlier in the day.
The plot unfolds organically from this simple cat-and-mouse premise, with the two antagonists behaving with an intelligence and plausibility all too rare in movies these days. Lisa tries to alert a fellow passenger of the terrorist plot with a message scrawled in a borrowed book; Rippner intercepts it. She writes a soapy warning on the lavatory mirror; he--well, you get the idea. There are no out-of-left-field plot twists. She's not secretly in on the conspiracy; he's not working on the secretary's behalf to make him look heroic with a phony assassination attempt. Everyone is exactly who he appears to be. Yes, amazingly, it's really that easy to make a good movie. This is the kind of film that Hollywood ought to (and once did) make a hundred of each year. Instead, we're lucky if we get a dozen.
It helps that Red Eye is blessed with two gifted young performers. Since her breakthrough performance as a delightfully haughty high-school queen bee in Mean Girls, Rachel McAdams has been fast establishing herself as one of the most versatile young actresses in Hollywood. Her alert intelligence is a pleasant tonic in an onscreen world full of bland beauties. Cillian Murphy, too, is on the rise following his indelibly creepy performance as Dr. Crane in Batman Begins. With his measured charm and blue eyes as chilly as a slap of Aqua Velva, he's a villain Hitchcock would have admired. The final crucial ingredient is director Wes Craven, who demonstrates that that his B-movie chops are not limited to slasher movies. His direction is brisk and unfussy; as a result, the film seems to follow the motto by which Lisa says her grandmother lived: "Always look forward."
Flightplan, too, opens with a death in the family, but rather than look forward it is mired in the past. Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster), a propulsion engineer living in Berlin, is mourning the death of her husband, who fell off a roof. The maudlin, pretentious early scenes are like a lecture in Death Imagery 101: black crows, departing subway cars, an open window that lets in the winter chill. Kyle is just barely keeping herself together. Sometimes she imagines that her husband is still alive, walking with her through the Teutonic gloom. But there are arrangements to be made: She and her six-year-old daughter, Julia, must accompany the coffin back to the States on an airliner.
But not just any airliner. They're traveling on an enormous new passenger jet for which Kyle helped design the engines. The film seems absurdly delighted about this two-level aeronautical elephant, gliding over its wide staircases and gleaming cocktail lounge. (Because what airline wouldn't want its passengers to spend the flight out of their seats getting drunk and climbing stairs?) On such a large plane, of course, it is important not to misplace anything. Thus it is a particular problem when Kyle awakes from a brief nap to discover Julia is missing.
She begins her search calmly enough, but becomes increasingly agitated as she can find no sign of her daughter. Other factors subsequently contribute to her anxiety: Though there are more than 400 people on the plane, none of them ever noticed Julia, and the crew seems skeptical the girl was ever on board. Julia's belongings are missing, as is her ticket, which Kyle had put in her own pants pocket. The passenger manifest doesn't include Julia's name. Kyle responds to these developments with heightening paranoia and anger--demanding ever-more intrusive searches of the plane, accosting an Arab passenger--until a radio call back to Berlin reveals the appalling truth: Julia died days before, falling from the same rooftop as her father. In her grief, Kyle had simply lost her mind, hallucinating that Julia was alive and accompanying her on the plane.
Had the movie ended here, it would have been a drab, ill-spirited little picture, though one with at least some minimal shred of authenticity. But this flight is bound for a considerably more ridiculous destination. (Spoilers follow, though believe me, this is a story that merits spoiling.) Julia is not dead and Kyle is not insane. Rather the two of them have been caught up in a conspiracy so fiendishly complex that it is, in fact, utterly idiotic. In an uncharacteristic spasm of credulity, Roger Ebert described Flightplan's plot as "airtight," which it is to approximately the same degree as a whiffle ball. There are far too many inanities to catalog here, so I'll describe just one: For the villains' plan to succeed, it was not merely convenient, but necessary that not a single soul on the plane ever notice Julia--not when she boarded, not when she and mom moved to an empty row for a nap, not when she was drugged by the conspirators and pulled from her seat and stuffed into a food bin and carted away. Had anyone on the flight ever noticed any of this (or had Kyle not moved them to an empty row, or not fallen asleep, or--whoops, I promised only one inanity) the entire plot would have failed. And here you thought it was impossible to plan more shoddily than the Bush administration did for post-war Iraq.
But perhaps worse even than Flightplan's historically moronic conspiracy is its tone. In part because the plot is so asinine, the movie focuses largely on Kyle's emotional state. She doesn't do so much as feel, in agonized frame after agonized frame. Her grief over a dead husband and missing child is the only real hook the movie has to get viewers involved, so it fetishizes her pain relentlessly. The result is something akin to emotional pornography.
Jodie Foster's performance is not exactly bad, but it is painfully one-note. She careens around the plane, her face tight as a drum, in varying states of rage and panic. It's the kind of Big Performance that is supposed to make a film, but in this case renders it very nearly unwatchable. Foster has never worn stardom lightly, and in recent years that discomfort has become evident onscreen as well as off. This is the second consecutive starring role (the first was 2002's Panic Room) in which she has played a terrified single mother trying to protect her child from villainous predators. Indeed, the theme of predation on women and children runs through most of her major performances, with her initially in the role of victim (Taxi Driver, The Accused) and later in that of protector (The Silence of the Lambs). When, in Flightplan, she pleads for help finding her daughter because, "People do things to little girls, sick things," it seems as though she is speaking from the anguished pseudo-experience of having played a hooker at the tender age of 13.
Flightplan has more of everything than Red Eye: A bigger budget, bigger star, bigger emotions, bigger plot twists, and, of course, a bigger plane. One can almost hear the satisfied voices of the producers when, upon first seeing the airliner, Julia says, "It's so big," and Kyle replies proudly, "It's the biggest." It is yet another proof that, in Hollywood, bigger is usually worse.
The Home Movies List: B+ Entertainments
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). Another mid-level film demonstrates the considerable virtue of just not screwing up. Nothing in it is great, but nothing is lousy either, and the result is surprisingly satisfying. Compare this to an earlier stab at Dumas, 1998's The Man in the Iron Mask, whose fistful of international stars (with their competing accents) and welter of intersecting storylines contributed to a sodden, ill-shaped mess.
Cellular (2004). Kim Basinger seems to me a meta-actress: She knows there's a craft called acting and she's seen it up close enough times that she can manage a reasonable facsimile. In Cellular, her typically mannered performance as a kidnapped high-school teacher is a little off-putting. But it's more than made up for by Chris Evans's easy surfer charm as the unlikely hero whose cell phone she calls at random. Further evidence that when it comes to thrillers, simplicity is usually a virtue.
Sky High (2005). Okay, maybe this is more of a B-, but it's a likable underachiever. This tossed-off family film about a child of famous superheroes who hasn't yet come into his powers doesn't have a tenth the wit or imagination of Pixar's magnificent The Incredibles. But it knows it doesn't, and this recognition gives it a good-natured hokiness that more ambitious films generally lack.
"Law & Order" (hasn't it been with us always?). Where did the B+ movies go? To the little screen, where the whole point is to find an infinitely replicable formula and stick with it. Future historians will be able to argue the relative merit of "CSI"'s flow-chart forensics, but for now "Law & Order," with 16 seasons and innumerable cast changes under its belt, is the reigning champ.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.