Patrick Vollrath’s 7500 is a one-room, one-man show. It asks you to spend 92 minutes inside the cockpit of an Airbus A319, and in intimate quarters with a young first officer who must land it back to safety once the aircraft is hijacked by a group of Islamist terrorists. It is, for the best part of its brisk running time, a stomach-churning ride that bursts with the same force and anxieties of another recent–but far superior–single-setting drama: Steven Knight’s Locke. Much like Knight’s sophomore directorial work, it seesaws between claustrophobic and expansive, a testament to how much can be achieved in a location spanning a handful of square meters. Take it as a real-time thriller, an intelligently crafted study in cinematic minimalism, and 7500 works. The trouble starts when Vollrath’s feature debut (a follow-up to his 2015 Oscar-nominated short Everything Will Be Okay) attempts the landing. High above the clouds is where 7500 feels most visceral; but when the hijacking narrows down to a face-off between pilot and terrorist, things hit a cliché-riddled, insipid terrain.
Most man-in-a-can movies wear out their premise quickly–a malaise that affected the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Buried (about a man buried alive in a coffin), as much as Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (about a man trapped in a comparatively nicer cage). You may argue Locke went some way toward curtailing the claustrophobia via ample cutaways and point-of-view shots of the highway Tom Hardy raced through–and the same can be said of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which allowed Sandra Bullock to float around her spaceship often enough for the drama never to feel oppressive. Courtesy of Vollrath’s assured directing as much as Hansjörg Weissbrich’s editing and Sebastian Thaler’s camerawork–making the most of the setting’s blind spots and small confines–7500 pulls off a similar feat. Once you’re locked inside the cockpit, what you cannot see past the fortified door (or the aircraft’s windscreen, for that matter) you are invited to imagine. Not only does the gimmick accrue the mounting anxiety–it further bridges the gap between the audience and the young pilot responsible for the lives of the 80-plus crew aboard.
7500’s hero is 31-year-old Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Barring some turbulence warnings and a couple of late passengers, the nighttime Berlin-to-Paris flight he’s sharing with his German-Turkish girlfriend and stewardess Gökçe (Aylin Tezel) and co-piloting next to captain Michael (real-life pilot-turned-actor Carlo Kitzlinger), would appear to be a simple assignment. But no sooner has the flight pierced through the clouds above Berlin than three terrorists–wielding smashed bottles and makeshift glass shard knives–try to barge inside the cockpit. Only one of them makes it through, gang leader Kenan (Murathan Muslu). He fatally stabs the captain and injures Tobias, who then knocks him unconscious, and regains control of the aircraft. But while things inside the cockpit seem under control–to the extent that they can be, in the circumstances–past the fortified door, the situation precipitates deeper into chaos.
Where the link between Hardy’s Ivan Locke and the world that sprawled beyond his BMW was kept intact through endless, hands-free cell phones, the only connection between Tobias and the horror unfolding aboard is a high angle security camera placed above the cockpit’s door. Once the two terrorists stuck outside it realize no shouldering will smash it, the camera–and intercom–turn into instruments of torture, and Tobias is invited to watch the gruesome consequences his resistance bears for the passengers turned hostages. It’s a helpless, hopeless, and horrific show–nailing some of 7500’s most viciously captivating sequences, with Tobias staring at the tiny screen in wide-eyed terror, torn in between a desire to save lives, and the traffic controllers’ order not to open the door and engineer a safety landing in Hanover instead.
Part of the nail-biting thrills of 7500 is to watch a man summoned to make one life-or-death choice after the other, a man in a physical and mental lockdown, forced to watch as his life crumbles on a grainy CCTV footage. Thaler’s cinematography restitutes the Airbus A319 as a loud, howling death machine–but it is Gordon-Levitt’s plunge into horror that takes the material up a notch. Convincing as he is as a becalmed, assured junior pilot, it is when the airborne crisis spirals out of control that his grieving, wrecked Tobias helps elevate the whole work to its fiercest moments of agony.
Sadly, that’s not enough to lift 7500 from the cocktail of clichés it eventually nosedives into. Once terror spreads and escalates inside the cockpit, leaving the youngest terrorist–anxious and skittish Vedat (Omid Memar)–alone with Tobias, 7500 loses all the adrenaline it had stirred along the flight. And by the start of the final act, the script (penned by Vollrath and co-scribe Senad Halilbasic) hits autopilot mode. Just what will happen between a man and scared 18-year-old boy is all too easy to predict as 7500 ends up churning out your habitual set of hostage thriller tropes–from the discovery of common ground between victim and assailer, to the predictable, last-minute phone call from loved ones back home. And while a point could be made that the identification of the terrorist trio as Muslim men is a cliché in its own right, it is not the clash of civilizations that’s most concerning here. In fact, Vollrath breezes through the hijackers’ political and religious discourse to an extent that would seem to make it somewhat irrelevant. True, Kenan does make a reference to the price Westerners “have to pay” for the atrocities they perpetrate every day against his fellow Muslims, but the dichotomy between the West and Islam is hardly a point Vollrath bangs on ad nauseam, thankfully.
What’s most troubling is that, as 7500 culminates in an abrupt finale, the feeling is to have witnessed little more than an adroit display of technical bravado–a work that, well-crafted as it may be, adds little to the pantheon of airborne disaster movies. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” reads the quote by Gandhi that opens the film and lingers all throughout it. Much like the moral undertones of the final exchanges between Tobias and Vedat, it feels like an awkward, hollow plea.
7500 premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.