I have a special fondness for one room films. As the name suggests, these are films which are confined to one location for the majority of the runtime. They usually take place over a day (or in real time) and only feature a handful of characters. The great thing about these films is how creative they must be in order to keep things interesting. Alfred Hitchcock’s films like Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954) are the grandfathers of this technique, essentially tying this style of filmmaking to the thriller genre. Many of these films have been set in the air, seeing as nothing is more claustrophobic than the cabin of a plane. Director Patrick Vollrath’s Amazon Prime Original film 7500 (2020), is the latest offering to this genre.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tobias Ellis, a 31 year old pilot about to embark on a commercial flight from Berlin to Paris as the First Officer. Captain Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger) and Tobias engage in small talk while they wait for the passengers to board. Tobias’ girlfriend who is also one of the flight attendants, Gökce (Aylin Tezel) talks with Tobias about which school they should send their young son to. After takeoff, a handful of passengers reveal themselves to be terrorists intent on hijacking the plane. Captain Lutzmann is incapacitated, leaving Tobias alone in the cockpit. Tobias can see from the cabin camera that all the passengers and flight attendants’ lives are in danger if he doesn’t give the terrorists control of the plane.
Fitting neatly into the genre’s parameters, nearly the entire film takes place from inside the cockpit. This setting makes for an unnervingly claustrophobic experience, which is very effective considering that most of the action involves terrorists trying to break through the door. It goes without saying that a plane hijacking is a large scale plot, so it was up to Director Patrick Vollrath and Cinematographer Sebastian Thaler to come up with a clever way of conveying the action outside the cockpit without actually taking us there. Happily, the cockpit camera shows a feed from the cabin, effectively adding the necessary stress. Vollrath introduces this trick with a phenomenal opening sequence which ratchets up the tension to astonishing levels.
While the setting is smartly arranged and the build up is wonderfully sharp, the narrative itself does lose momentum very quickly. There’s only so much drama to be gleaned from a game of chicken between a pilot refusing to open a door and a terrorist threatening to kill passengers. The situation is very horrific and would be a nightmare for anyone to actually live through, but there’s not much to actually flesh out in terms of storytelling. To be fair, the premise and artistic constraints don’t provide many set pieces or scenarios, so it’s amazing that Vollrath has managed to stretch the events into a full length runtime. Even so, most of the shocking and powerful moments are paid off too early, leaving the rest of the film in limbo.
To be clear, the film does build to a climax and has set piece moments, but they don’t hit the audience as hard as they should. While the lack of storytelling momentum is a factor, the main thing holding back 7500 from being truly memorable is a relatively flat tone. Granted, this is an intentional choice and it does give the film a welcome sheen of authenticity. This isn’t a thrill-a-minute action romp with the President fighting terrorists off his plane, nor is it a deeply emotional drama with passengers nobly sacrificing themselves for a greater good. Vollrath’s intention is to wipe any hint of cinematic flare from the dialogue, performances and story turns, thus presenting us with the most true to life depiction of such a stressful scenario. This is a double-edged-sword in this film’s case, as it trades (important) emotional power for flat realism.
The push towards naturalism isn’t without purpose, as it’s clearly meant to facilitate the dark subject matter. Despite the noble thematic intentions, it doesn’t really arrive at a strong enough point. Obviously, terrorism on planes is a serious topic, so it makes sense as to why the film is so grim. The problem isn’t with the level of darkness, but rather with it not having much to say about terrorism. In fairness, not all films need to leave the audience with a message, as they can get along fine with a self-serving character arc. 7500 does have a character focused conclusion, but the revelations are evident long before they actually occur. Whatever thematic wisdom the film does offer is a little too thin and isn’t weaved into the narrative as tightly as it needed. Unfortunately, this results in the film feeling like it has come 15 years too late, as it doesn’t have anything new to say. The pieces are all in place, but they needed a bit more attention.
The glue that holds the film together is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tobias. When viewed as a performance piece, 7500 is an incredible showcase for Gordon-Levitt’s undeniable talent. For years, Gordon-Levitt has been one of the most delightfully unexpected leading men in the business, boasting a phenomenal body of work that shows off his ever expanding range. He can effortlessly go from a hopelessly delusional romantic in (500) Day of Summer (2008), to an ice-cool mindhunter in Inception (2010), to a flawed and unfeeling assassin in Looper (2012). His ability to successfully embody completely opposing traits from role to role isn’t given nearly enough praise. The years have not dampened his charm, and 7500 allows him to use nearly all of his skills to their fullest.
It’s not easy compressing a narrative into one location. Those who’ve tried will probably admit as much. When all the pieces align, the results can be startling. We all remember how much 12 Angry Men (1957) made us think, or how much Dog Day Afternoon (1975) made us laugh, or how much Locke (2013) made us cry. When the stars align, a one room film can be a true cinematic delight. So it’s a shame that 7500 doesn’t end up being all it could have been. Despite this, Patrick Vollrath has been a talented director of fantastic short films for over a decade now, so I’ll be happily anticipating whatever he makes next, whether that be another feature, short or TV series.
Best way to watch it: Watch United 93 (2006) or Patrick Vollrath’s award winning short, Everything Will Be Okay (2016).