The thing that’s most impressive about “7500” – a new high-altitude thriller from German filmmaker Patrick Vollrath that’s as succinct as it is complacent – isn’t exactly something I’m jumping at the bit to praise. It’s not as much the specifics of the (lackluster) narrative or (dubious) subject matter that have left me wary, but the implications reflecting back on a director fashioning himself less as an artist and more of a technician. For his feature debut after spending the last decade in the realm of shorts (including 2015’s Oscar-nominated “Alles wird gut”), Vollrath has made a 90-minute action-drama about a hijacked plane that exists solely as an exercise in emotional and aesthetic restraint, de-pressurizing the high stakes you’d expect from its elevator pitch for the sake of seeking – and failing to find – some enlightenment about cross-cultural connection.
Vollrath’s unusual intentions are rooted – first via a hint, then by broad strokes – in the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, returning in his first leading role since 2016’s “Snowden” as the co-pilot of a Paris-bound flight targeted by Islamic terrorists (more later on that unfortunate element). The slick-voiced homeliness that has serviced the 39-year-old JGL well in some movies (“Brick,” “(500) Days of Summer”) and not so well in others (“Inception,” “Snowden”) is weaponized in “7500”; as Tobias Ellis, he’s as stoic as a monk as he greets the jet’s captain (spoiler: he won’t last long) and goes through the pre-flight checklist, offering little more than a chuckle when the final two passengers arrive moments before takeoff. In the context of the uniform he’s wearing, the strict attention to the job makes sense.
The filmmaking follows suit with its own evergreen monotony. You notice the lack of a musical score from the jump, as we follow the soon-to-be-hijackers through grainy images of airport security cameras accompanied by nothing but the opening credits and a foreboding hummm of machinery. The editing work by Hansjörg Weißrich makes for a movie constructed matter-of-factually, even as events ramp up in intensity. I imagine the movie’s cinematographer, Sebastian Thaler, had to get creative in shooting “7500,” as it unfolds almost entirely within an increasingly claustrophobic cockpit, bringing to mind other confined-space thrillers like “Locke” and “Buried.”
The proceedings unfold at a taut but unhurried pace, and while the lack of anything remotely resembling spectacle is stark, “7500” is able to lay down the bricks of tension early on – one by one by one – using ominous details and simplistic sound design as the mortar. The shutting of the cockpit door upon takeoff. Tobias’s first glance at the black-and-white image of what’s on the other side. The too-sensible-for-comfort cinematography that likens itself to a child peering from pilot to pilot, watching where their hands and eyes go. The claustrophobia is so palpable that sometimes you forget we’re 30,000 feet in the air.
From a technical standpoint, “7500” is effective at creating a sensation of restlessness out of the exponentially ordinary, and it remains that way after unwelcome visitors first come barreling into the cockpit in an attempt to take control, resulting in a skirmish before the attackers are pushed back outside and a standoff of wills begins. An endless hammering away at the cockpit door provides for some of the movie’s most anxiety-inducing moments, mainly because there’s nothing else we or Tobias can turn to for a distraction. The movie has its moments early on in delivering basic thrills.
Where the minimalism and rigid devotion to Tobias’s perspective doesn’t fit is the screenplay. Written by Vollrath and Senad Halibasic, the story of “7500” indulges itself in a lack of indulgence, reflecting the film’s aesthetic trappings but not supported by them. Tobias being romantically involved with one of the stewardesses is a dramatic wrinkle, but you haven’t seen enough movies if you can’t predict where that foreshadowing ends up.
The decision to play this would-be disaster so straight-faced it may as well be irony may have worked if we had gotten to know the characters outside of their occupations, had gotten a taste of their lives outside the cockpit. At the risk of sounding like I expected “7500” to be as good as a multi-Oscar-winning blockbuster, when the violinists in “Titanic” start playing “Near My God to Thee” as the ship sinks, the moment is effective not just because of the juxtaposition between calming song and fleeing passengers. It also works because we’ve offhandedly gotten to know them outside the impending terror.
In “7500,” though, there’s no knowing Tobias or his wife, the captain or the hijackers, outside of the plane; hell, there isn’t even a wide exterior shot of the aircraft. So loyal is Vollrath to his filmmaking philosophy that it ends up constraining him, to the point where the director’s experiment of seeing how confined he can possibly make his movie – from craft to plot to characters – begins to resemble a lackluster excuse for cardboard characterizations and half-baked morality plays. When people around Tobias start dying, the screenplay might as well call for Gordon-Levitt to react as if he’s stubbed his toe. The acting isn’t subtle so much as infuriatingly one-dimensinal. The thing that’s most impressive about what Vollrath does here? It’s how the director almost provides a cover for what feels like a neutered narrative. I'm almost surprised he gave his characters names.
There are hints of how the story could’ve been a psychological exploration of the unimaginable position Tobias is thrust into – “Locke” is memorable because of its swerves into the surreal, even as it never goes outside the car – but “7500” remains steadfast in its practicality, to forgettable results. There’s also a strange cognitive dissonance that flares up when watching a movie so obviously entrenched in a post-9/11 state of mind and refusing to acknowledge it. Outdated, unnecessary depictions of Muslim terrorists don’t help Vollrath’s case, especially when those of the Islam faith are already egregiously under-represented in Western cinema. And the movie’s attempt to detangle stereotypes is bungled when it arrives at a place of trauma.
There’s a depletion of urgency in “7500” that, while enticing early on, quickly becomes burdensome in light of a weightless story and emotionally stale conclusion. There’s not much engagement to be found here, which is an ironic realization when you consider the overarching reasons people are largely choosing to stay off airplanes these days.
"7500" is rated R for violence/terror and language. It's available now on Amazon Prime Video.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu, Aylin Tezel
Directed by Patrick Vollrath