Ever since 9/11 changed the way we approach air travel, it’s been harder to make airplane-based thrillers in the soapy-silly trash tradition of “Airport” or “Executive Decision”: The panic of being under siege at 30,000 feet no longer feels like such ripe entertainment fodder with the image of two Boeing 767s hitting the Twin Towers still vivid in our collective consciousness. Paul Greengrass’ deliberately grueling docudrama “United 93,” of course, pointed a solemn new way for the genre, though that had historical veracity and import on its side. German director Patrick Vollrath’s short, stomach-tightening debut feature “7500” follows in its flight path, albeit with a wholly fictional scenario — told from the perspective of the junior co-pilot (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose simple Berlin-to-Paris assignment is violently disrupted by Islamist hijackers.
For its first half, “7500” is briskly effective in a cold-sweat sort of way, carrying its audience from a smooth takeoff to the first signs of disturbance to swiftly cranked all-out terror with the kind of nervy efficiency you can admire without exactly taking pleasure in it. In more ways than one, however, Vollrath’s technically adroit film has trouble sticking the landing. As it narrows the onboard crisis to a quivering two-man face-off between pilot and terrorist in the cockpit — from the cramped confines of which, in the director’s most formally striking decision, the on-screen action never strays — sentimental contrivance trickles into the steel-blue vérité of proceedings, leaving the film with a visceral mission to complete but not an awful lot to say.
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Inessential in itself, this is nonetheless an auspicious calling card for Vollrath, confirming the slick promise of his Oscar-nominated 2015 short “Everything Will Be Okay” and showcasing the chops to steer larger genre projects. For Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, it’s a surprising swerve into mid-level European cinema that he carries off, well, if not exactly without breaking a sweat, at least with charismatic assurance. Well-cast in a role that calls on his compact physicality and good-guy reserve, he’ll draw a wider range of viewers to “7500” (no relation to Takashi Shimizu’s cheesy 2014 chiller “Flight 7500,” so maybe the title could use a tweak) than it might otherwise have dreamed of, though the film is likely to find much of its audience via smaller screens. In-flight ones, not so much.
An eerie opening sequence, soundtracked only to an ambient industrial hum, immediately sets viewers on the alert, as it alternates between multiple security monitors in a Berlin airport — grazing over all the eventual attackers, it turns out, though the point is that pretty much anyone can look murkily suspicious in grainy CCTV video. As Paris-bound passengers board the small budget aircraft manned by trusty German captain Michael (real life pilot-turned-actor Carlo Kitzlinger) and his American deputy Tobias (Gordon-Levitt), we’re teased us with a false-alarm crisis — it seems two passengers have checked in baggage but not boarded — but all is otherwise calm. Tobias’ German-Turkish girlfriend Gökçe (Aylin Tezel), a stewardess on the same flight, is fretting over a domestic matter involving their young son, though he placates her: “This isn’t a disaster,” he says.
Needless to say, Vollrath’s script does not foreshadow lightly. Minutes after takeoff, three Muslim extremists attempt to storm the cockpit, their leader Kenan (Muruthan Muslu) managing to enter before the security door is successfully shut. Michael is critically injured; from behind the door come further grisly sounds of struggle, though Tobias’ view is limited to the high, compressed angle of another single security camera. Vollrath, with the sharp aid of d.p. Sebastian Thaler and editor Hansjörg Weissbrich, deftly exploits the spatial limitations and blind spots of the sealed-off cockpit for maximum claustrophobic impact — as Tobias essentially has to work on his own to restrain Kenan, retain control of the plane and engineer an emergency landing in Hanover, all while constant, ominous thudding against the door signals the mounting, violent chaos behind him.
Once anxious 18-year-old accomplice Vedat (Omid Memar) also breaks into the cockpit, however, “7500” loses tension as well as altitude. It’s altogether too obvious how the dynamic between man and scared, skittish boy will play out, and by the time Vollrath’s script falls back on clichés familiar from countless previous hostage thrillers — the discovery of homely common ground, an ironically timed phone call from a loved one — the film slips out of taut, nightmarish realism and into less credible melodramatic territory.
Gordon-Levitt and Memar nonetheless play it for all the emotional agony it’s worth; their performances, together with the economical expertise of the film’s construction, keep “7500” cruising some way above B-movie level. Yet as the film reaches its muted, blunt-edged conclusion, it’s hard to say what we’ve really gained from 90 minutes in its uncomfortable company: Any political or cultural insights into 21st-century terrorism are thin on the ground, while none of the characters is terribly interesting beyond the dire immediacy of their circumstances. Well-crafted and mostly immersive as experiential cinema, “7500” has enough of a post-9/11, post-“United 93” conscience that we aren’t entirely expected to enjoy the ride.