'7500': Film Review | Locarno 2019

Locarno Film Festival
Not a smooth ride.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a co-pilot who faces terrorists in his cockpit in this debut feature from German director Patrick Vollrath.

A young co-pilot finds himself fending off terrorists on a m—f— plane in 7500, the mostly English-language feature debut from German director Patrick Vollrath, whose short Everything Will Be Okay was nominated for an Oscar in 2016. The film is set entirely in the cockpit of an Airbus A319 and in real time, with star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the co-pilot, in practically every frame — except whenever he’s almost comically passed out behind his seat. 

Intended as a 90-minute nail-biter, the movie starts off strong but loses steam about halfway through and never quite recovers. Also not helping is the two-dimensional portrayal of the terrorists, which feels both dated and dangerous in the current climate, turning them into the 21st-century equivalent of Russian baddies in a Roger Moore-era Bond pic. That said, 7500 is technically proficient and should put Vollrath on the radar of studio bigwigs looking for hired Euro guns for their generically efficient summer tentpoles. Amazon bought the rights for the film in Cannes.

The American Tobias (a bespectacled, self-possessed Gordon-Levitt) works for an unspecified German airline as a first officer, next to the older and more experienced German pilot, Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger). Tobias lives in Berlin with his young son and his girlfriend, the half-German, half-Turkish Gokce (Aylin Tezel), who works as a stewardess for the same company. In fact, they are on the same aircraft when the movie opens, though they try to be discreet about their private connection.

After some security footage of “Berlin Airport” that ominously focuses on some men with Middle Eastern looks, the film proper opens in the cockpit of the Airbus, where Tobias and Michael take their seat and prepare for takeoff. Gokce even manages to sneak in briefly when Michael isn’t there. There’s lots of small talk and, a few strong hints notwithstanding, a false sense of normalcy is convincingly established by Vollrath, who co-penned the rather straightforward screenplay with Vienna-based Bosnian screenwriter Senad Halilbasic. 

About 20 minutes into the pic — and thus 20 minutes aboard the plane — a group of terrorists led by the fearless Daniel (Paul Wollin) tries to enter the cockpit when the pilots' meals are being delivered. But after a fight, only the broad-shouldered Kinan (Murathan Muslu) manages to worm his way in and gravely hurt Michael. Tobias then knocks him unconscious and straps him into a seat in the cockpit, as the cockpit door has to be kept shut to keep the other terrorists out. The immersive sound design, however, keeps reminding us they are always just outside, with their continued banging on the door turning into an intentionally repetitive, nerve-wracking soundtrack of sorts (there is no musical score, so the sense of cinema verite unspooling in real time is further heightened).

Also reminding Tobias and the viewers of what is outside is a grainy black-and-white monitor inside the cockpit that shows who is at the cockpit door. At times, Tobias has to turn it off because it becomes too much, especially when the terrorists decide to take some people hostage.

Vollrath’s choice to maintain the Aristotelian unities of action, time and space is an interesting one, with the passengers of the aircraft never visible (United 93 this is not) besides the few who pass in front of the camera at the cockpit door. But it also paints the rookie director into a corner because he must still fill about 90 minutes and there’s only limited room in the cockpit for characters or actions (though all the action there is very competently staged).

The most problematic aspect of the film is the fact that Michael, the main pilot, and Kinan, the terrorist, are unconscious at various times and Tobias ends up on the floor as well, with people suddenly waking up whenever it is convenient for the story. This feels too much like simple plot manipulation to keep the story moving. That happens often in other big-screen action features, too. But when there are more characters in a larger space or spaces, it's less conspicuous because as a viewer you are trying to keep up with many people in different places at once. Here, the character count is small and they all remain in a single, tiny cramped space, so the flaw becomes obvious and chips away at the credibility of the proceedings.

Also not great for credibility is that the movie isn’t interested in the characters beyond their function in the plot. The motivation of the terrorists is to take revenge on the West because the West is killing Muslims. There’s not much more nuance or detail available, which turns them into generic evildoers. Vollrath perhaps tries to make a comment about the world as a globalized melting pot by giving Tobias a half-Turkish girlfriend and a quarter-Turkish child. But it feels largely like tokenism because, though he works and also lives in Germany with his girlfriend and son, Tobias has made no effort to learn even a bit of German or Turkish. This suggests that it is up to the Turks to assimilate but that white guys are somehow fully exempt, which isn't exactly an enlightened stand in the debate about terrorism and its root causes. More generally, the relationships that characters have in the real world, outside of the plane, are either very, very basically sketched — a mother here, a son there — or entirely absent.

Putting aside the fact that the pic is headlined by an internationally recognizable name like Gordon-Levitt — who is fine, though he could do this role in his sleep — there is actually no need for the character to be American at all. Vollrath does not even use the fact that he can’t understand/speak German as a possible plot device to create tension or possible misunderstandings.

The film’s final act, in which Tobias faces off against the doubting, 18-year-old terrorist recruit Vedat (Omid Memar), is also underwritten, with the conflicted character feeling more like a plaything of story necessity than a convincingly disturbed human being who finally comes face to face with his own moral failings. The relationship between Vedat and Tobias, which sees some Stockholm Syndrome-like behavior creeping in, isn’t given the room it needs to be credibly developed and finally feels like a cheap ploy for the audience's emotions as 7500 veers from thriller into more melodramatic territory. 

Cinematographer Sebastian Thaler and production designer Thorsten Sabel have done a great job recreating a cockpit that looks convincing while also functioning as a space for the dramatic struggles and difficult choices that have to be made there. The cockpit’s relatively harsh and spare lighting is used particularly effectively in a few sequences. Special effects are also solid and looked convincing on the big screen — and will look even better on small screens, though it’s hard to imagine this film would ever pop up on your in-flight entertainment system.  

Production companies: Augenschein Filmproduktion, Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion, Filmnation Entertainment, Endeavor Content
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Aylin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu, Paul Wollin
Director: Patrick Vollrath
Screenplay: Patrick Vollrath, Senad Halilbasic
Producers: Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo
Executive producers: Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Lindsay Williams
Director of photography: Sebastian Thaler
Production designer: Thorsten Sabel
Costume designer: Christine Zahn
Editing: Hansjorn Weissbrich
Casting: Anja Dihrberg
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)

In English, German, Turkish, Arabic
92 minutes