By Elias Savada.
German-born filmmaker Patrick Vollrath’s first feature, the foreign-financed, English-language 7500 (pronounced seven-five-zero-zero), is the latest in a long string of airplane hijacking movies. Since most folks are not doing any flying these days (stay home, stay safe), you might find meager travel points accumulating in your frequent flyer account for this claustrophobic sub-genre action thriller entry. This Amazon Prime pickup isn’t going to make anyone’s Top Ten “Best Hijack” flicks (which I would top with Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006), with 1997’s popcorn-pleasing Air Force One in its tailwind), as it moves along its steadily declining trajectory toward a not unexpected landing.
Some of you might be familiar with the filmmaker’s short subjects – he’s made about a half dozen since 2007. Two are currently free watches on YouTube: 2013’s Ketchup Kid, about a pair of boys who get bullied at school, and the brilliant Alles wird gut (Everything Will Be Okay), which features a young girl who slowly realizes her divorced dad has more sinister plans than a weekend get-together with his daughter. The latter 30-minute tale showcases Vollrath’s excellent director-actor communication skills; it won many accolades and awards, and was an 2015 Oscar nominee in the Live Action Short category. Encouraged by the response, Vollrath pitched his outline, then treatment, and short script into what became a state funded effort from the Austrian (the director is based in Vienna) and German governments.
Vollrath researched his project as an extreme, reality-based, cockpit-cam vision of a fictional terrorist attack aboard a Berlin to Paris flight. In his director shoes, he introduces the film with wide-angle, widescreen airport security cameras recording perhaps suspicious characters making their way through what is presumably Berlin Tegel. Within minutes, you’re sharing that cockpit, which is pretty much where you’ll stay for the rest of the movie, scrunched up next to Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger), the German pilot, Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in lieu of first choice Paul Dano opting out due to scheduling conflicts), his non-German-speaking American co-pilot, and other unwelcomed guests. Lutzmann and Ellis find themselves in harm’s way soon after the banal pre-flight banter and control tower instructions morph the Airbus A319’s routine liftoff into a panic-filled evening. Also on board is Tobias’s Turkish-German girlfriend Gökce (Aylin Tezel), a flight attendant with whom he shares their young, unseen son. She’s got a few scenes, but for the most part the plot centers on the pilots and the Arabic-speaking invaders who storm their throne.
As for Gordon-Levitt, a fine actor in some of my favorite films (Inception, Looper, and 500 Days of Summer being just three of them), there’s a great deal to commend him for in the film, but apparently there are some impressive but awkward improv moments – Vollrath would let the cameras roll for 20 or 30-plus minutes – and edit that down into usable footage. That was new to the star, “I’ve never done anything like that before!” Still, he does a decent ordinary guy impersonation considering all the dialogue, except for the technical jargon, was spontaneous to the low-key, studio cockpit set.
The absence of a music track (something Vollrath learned while being mentored by Austrian director Michael Haneke, who caters to minimalist musical scores) heightens the belief that’s there nothing that will soothe you troubled soul here. You are confined in the bleak, rainy (which constantly hammers the plane’s windshield) darkness. Sebastian Thaler’s handheld camerawork – he was the only crew member positioned near the actors – further turns the affair into a cinema verité action piece.
The second half of the 92-minute film finds frightened teenage accomplice (Omid Memar) joining the mix and having to decide if he has the heart to help carry through with the vengeful hijacking plot or negotiate a very different, life-altering outcome.
While this part of the film lags while Vollrath’s script tries to hash out a serviceable hostage rescue ending, the reality that is so effectively painted up to that point turns to sentimentality. Hey, it’s not a bad first film, and I would love to see the director sink his teeth into someone else’s screenplay for his next movie. It’s doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. 7500 certainly isn’t. Something with heart and soul, maybe some music, and his enviable work ethic.
By the way, the film’s title isn’t the flight number, which I suspect everyone would expect. It refers to a “squawk” code that a pilot enters into the airplane’s transponder, and 7500 alerts air traffic control of a hijacking in process (without letting the extremists know authorities have been notified). I’m not all that sure the film’s focus works to that plot point, or that it needed to.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).