7500 is a film that takes a familiar scenario and doubles down on its claustrophobic potential to find something a little more fresh. Pitched somewhere between Air Force One and United 93, director Patrick Vollrath’s feature debut transforms the hijacked plane scenario into an unnerving real-time thriller set exclusively within the confines of the cockpit. The result decently overcomes the reductive premise and archetypal characters through its pumping pace, dexterous camerawork, and a frantic performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt that ranks as one of his subtlest turns. Still coming with plenty of narrative shortcomings, 7500 still delivers as a Hitchcockian gamble that’s so committed to maintaining suspense at every turn that numerous scenes teeter on an anxiety attack. While that might not sound like the most inviting experience, 7500 takes a gradual approach that acclimates viewers to its setting before jolting them into the center of a conflict that doesn’t relent until the closing bit. But it’s just about everything before that which is pretty absorbing.
Despite the ominous foreshadowing of airport surveillance footage in the opening moments, 7500 settles into its narrow setting with naturalistic ease, as co-pilot Tobias (Gordon-Levitt) makes small talk with Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger) before a routine flight from Berlin to Paris. There’s just enough fleeting exposition to establish Tobias’ everyman qualities — he has a young child with flight attendant Gökce (Aylin Tezel), and the couple want to buy a house — while the takeoff plans come together with documentary-like details. For a few minutes, 7500 hovers in the technical chatter between the two men as the plane ascends through turbulent clouds and reaches cruising altitude. Of course, the inevitability of a harrowing conflict lingers in all the eerie calm. Yet 7500 stays still just long enough that when men burst into the cockpit wielding sharp glass and quickly overtake the plane, their arrival comes as a terrifying jolt to the system. In a muddle of shouting, jabbing, nose dives and blood, the body count rises and Tobias finds himself locked in his tiny command center with a subdued terrorist and two others shouting at him through the intercom with hostages galore. The tension keeps escalating from there, as Tobias darts from his joystick to a black-and-white monitor where he catches glimpses of the gruesome developments in the aisle just outside his door. The ensuing crisis continually locks in on Gordon-Levitt’s face as he careens from calculated survivor to emotional wreck and back again over the course of the movie’s more mixed final hour.
It’s pretty impressive to experience how each detail of 7500, from the snippets of radio chatter to button-mashing on the cockpit dashboard, plays a role in the absorbing collection of dread. Vollrath shot the movie in a decommissioned Airbus A320 and through a series of extensive long takes and relied on a unique improvisatory approach that called for the actors to respond to the circumstances as they changed. At times, that organic approach comes across in sudden, jumbled physical showdowns that lack much clarity, and sometimes yield clunky, questionable results. (Given the realism of the filmmaking, it’s a wonder how easily some people fall unconscious when the occasion calls for it.) But the movie always comes back to the essence of its appeal, as Tobias faces down a series hijackers using only the tools and objects around him. Vollrath clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Paul Greengrass, whose jittery camerawork casts such a large shadow he might be inclined to sue, but 7500 refashions that aesthetic with a minimalist design. To that end, it’s unfortunate that Vollrath and co-writer Senad Halilbasic chose to reduce their villains to the kind of vague Muslim caricatures that 9/11 turned into a racist trope. With the exception of a single passing missive against the Western world, the bad guys attempting to murder everyone onboard seem like they’ve been lifted from antiquated stereotypes that distract from the solid craftsmanship on display.
7500 never quite corrects that problem, but it does get away from it during the final passage, when one of the terrorists undergoes a deeper transformation. As Vedat, the mortified eighteen-year-old enduring a crisis of confidence at a key moment, actor Omid Memar injects a surprising degree of sympathy into the story, leaving Tobias — already traumatized many times over — in a place of utter confusion about how to fight back, or whether he even should. The movie’s climactic moments, sadly, come at a moment when the movie has somewhat lost its momentum, turning into a calm that can be both eerie and mundane. But what holds it together is the showcase performance by Gordon-Levitt, who’s in the position of selling each shocking twist, including some devastating moments that might seem awfully manipulative if he didn’t ground them in each credible glance. For another actor, it would be a star-making performance; in Gordon-Levitt’s case, it feels like the movie has forced him beyond his usual subdued demeanor as the character’s fear develops into simmering fury.
Nevertheless, the real wizardry of 7500 comes from the intensity and the keen understanding of how viewers process experiences on the basis of the information provided to them. Vollrath never gives us an exterior shot of the plane, so our orientation remains trapped within the narrow confines of a rumbling tube on the brink of destruction. Two decades after 9/11 turned the skies into a real-world terror, the movie taps into that terror with renewed intensity. At the same time, it acknowledges the power of movies to transform of modern anxieties into escapism. 7500 is an enticing experiment (and somewhat achievement) that digs into the utter dread at its core, while reveling in the thrill of sitting through it and hoping that this time, it might yield a happier ending. Brutally simple and lead by a strong Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 7500 is taut claustrophobia made with a largely thrilling force but shaky momentum.
7500 is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video