7500: Mayday, by Tyler Smith
It’s possible that Patrick Vollrath’s new thriller 7500 was never going to work. The story of an airplane hijacking told entirely from the point of view of the pilot in the cockpit sounds like a decent enough idea, but it requires tremendous cinematic discipline to keep from resorting to cheap narrative tricks. Even the most skilled directors would have a hard time maintaining the necessary intensity to make the film work, and Vollrath is far from that. While the film has a strong visual sense and is grounded by a layered, melancholy performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the end result is a movie that doesn’t fully trust its premise or its audience, dumbing down the proceedings to keep our attention.
The story involves young pilot named Tobias (Gordon-Levitt) as he attempts to navigate the difficult choices presented to him as his aircraft is hijacked by terrorists and his co-pilot (Carlo Kitzlinger) is incapacitated. With Tobias in control of the cockpit and no way for the hijackers to get in, the passengers and flight crew are threatened, including Tobias’ girlfriend (Aylin Tezel). Among the hijackers is an anxious 18-year-old named Vedat (Omid Memar) whose commitment to this suicide mission isn’t quite as strong as that of his friends.
As Tobias and Vedat begin to get to know each other, Vollrath invokes the wonderful Paul Greengrass film Captain Phillips, which featured a tenuous relationship between hijacker and hostage. And certainly, any attempt to humanize a would-be villain is more than welcome in a film like this. Unfortunately, Vedat just isn’t given quite enough to say or do to make us sympathetic. Played in a frenzy by Memar, the character too often comes across as simply annoying and we’re eager to be rid of him, as we know he’s too far out of his depth to make it out of this situation alive (an understanding that does much to undercut the tension).
As one might expect, any success the film achieves is due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance. And while his Tobias may at first appear oddly unemotional, we soon realize that his stoicism is rooted in his understanding of his role as pilot. He is meant to be strong and unshakeable, even in the most dire of circumstances. And any time Tobias speaks to another person – the passengers, the authorities, the hijackers – he assumes an air of authority, lest he cause further panic. But in those moments when he is truly alone, the mask slips and we see the anguish that he is going through, knowing that his duty – to never open the door – is going to result in the loss of innocent lives. It is a solid, well-rounded performance, made all the more tangible by Gordon-Levitt’s ability to appear composed while still hinting at the panic – and rage – that is just underneath the surface.
It is to Vollrath’s credit that a story as inherently limited as this – with all the action taking place in a tiny compartment – can be as consistently visually interesting as 7500 is. Vollrath and cinematographer Sebastian Thaler use the darkness of the cockpit and the eerie glow of the instrument panel to create a cold, moody atmosphere that differentiates this film from similarly-plotted docudramas like United 93 and Sully and firmly establishes it as a suspense thriller.
Despite Gordon-Levitt’s stellar work and an effective visual aesthetic, 7500 never quite comes together. The plot mechanics are too easy to decipher, as we can visualize Vollrath and co-writer Senad Halilbasic working to raise the stakes and hold audience interest. And while an eager-to-please mentality is hardly a crime, it seldom makes for the most enthralling audience experience, as what makes the film unique gets lost in a series of too-convenient cliches.