Barring a few cameos, the last four years have been relatively quiet ones for Looper-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. However, he returns in Patrick Vollrath’s directorial feature debut 7500 as Tobias Ellis; a co-pilot fighting against German-speaking Middle Eastern hijackers mid-flight. While at points a tightly wound thriller, the drama’s reductive terrorist storyline borders on emotionally manipulative.
7500’s strongest scenes often rely upon its awareness of space and footage. When Tobias and the pilot Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger) enter the claustrophobic cockpit, as the camera crosscuts to the narrow doorway leading to the main cabin, the tight shots welcomes dread. Upon Tobias’ girlfriend Gökce (Aylin Tezel)—who he shares a two-year old son with—coming to greet him, viewers are made aware of the cockpit’s struggle to fit three people at once. The space allows the viewer’s eyes to travel. And what one notices is the attention to detail in Gordon-Levitt and Kitzlinger’s performances. At home in the space, they’re not merely punching random flashing buttons, they waft an air of knowledge and control.
But trouble soon ensues. Three terrorists have boarded the plane: Kalkan (Passar Hariky); Kenan (Murathan Muslu); and the youngest of the trio Vedat (Omid Memar). And when the pilots open their padlocked security door to allow a stewardess entry with their food; the three combatants seize their opportunity. Because Vollrath and cinematographer Sebastian Thaler employ cctv footage: first from the airport and later through the cockpit’s surveillance screen projecting a live feed of the plane’s gangway—the juxtaposition of the lighting in the pilot’s compartment and the monochromatic feed fosters a debilitating intensity. And once the terrorists realize their plans to hijack the plane have been thwarted—when they threaten the lives of the hostage for Tobias to see on his cockpit feed—the crosscutting to the monochromatic footage: zapped of empathy and humanity, infuses fear on a granular level.
With a tight display of sound design: the constant banging of the terrorists on the compartment door and the non-stop crackle of the air-traffic controller’s monotone check-ins with Tobias, the first half hour of 7500 succeeds to a great degree.
However, during the ensuing hour of the hour-and-a-half affair, 7500 loses its kick. Instead, Vollrath attempts to humanize the terrified Vedat. But barring a sparse conversation with Tobias, Vedat lacks any semblance of multi-dimensionality. He never evolves past the in-over-his-head terrorist cliche, and is often infantilized. Viewers aren’t even told why the trio are hijacking the plane; beyond a few stereotyped lines that carry zero significance. If Vollrath wishes to add to the tired tradition of cinema portraying Middle Easterners solely as terrorists, then he should at least create unique characters beyond a build-a-terrorist workshop. Instead, Vollrath’s failed attempt to humanize Verdat results in the empathetic white hero and what amounts to a manipulative bait-and-switch ending that serves no one.
While 7500 features great crafts—and a partly unhinged yet solid performance from Gordon-Levitt—the scope of what could be possible isn’t present, here. Vollrath relies on tired tropes that lack depth and nuance beyond white man good, Middle Eastern man either vicious or naive. At its best, 7500 is Captain Phillips light. The problem is that it’s rarely at its best.
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