“7500” takes a familiar scenario and doubles down on its claustrophobic potential to make it 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 overcomes the reductive premise and archetypal characters through its adrenaline-pumping pace, dexterous camerawork, and a frantic performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt that ranks as one of his subtlest turns.
No matter its narrative shortcomings, “7500” delivers the most exciting cinematic ride of the year so far, a Hitchcockian gamble so committed to maintaining suspense at every turn that each scene teeters on the edge of 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 moments. By then, it’s too absorbing to look away.
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 bonafides — 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 minutiae worthy of a documentary. 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. (The green screen just outside the window makes for a convincing backdrop of light and shadows; the movie never once breaks the illusion.)
Of course, this isn’t Microsoft Flight Simulator, and the inevitability of a harrowing conflict lingers in 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 is a riveting assemblage of shots and cuts: Gordon-Levitt’s shifting expressions illustrate a rapid-fire variation on the Kuleshov Effect, as he careens from calculated survivor to emotional wreck and back again over the course of the movie’s nerve-racking final hour.
It’s extraordinary to experience how each detail of “7500,” from the snippets of radio chatter to button-mashing on the cockpit dashboard, plays a role in this absorbing tapestry of dread. Vollrath shot the movie 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 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 of hijackers using the tools at his disposal — an intercom, some seatbelts, and his singular commitment to land a plane when others want to crash it nose first.
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 — it’s like the idea of a Paul Greengrass movie reduced to its most energizing and visceral aspects. 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 sheer craftsmanship on display.
“7500” never quite corrects that problem, but it does get away from it during the riveting final passage, when one of the terrorists undergoes a deeper transformation. As Vedat, the mortified 18-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 including a remarkable sequence in which the two men allow minutes of silence to elapse before making a queasy attempt at small talk. By then, the utter calm in the air between them is even more disturbing than the hectic rhythms preceding it.
As an experiment with film language, Vollrath’s work here bears some comparison to “The Guilty,” Gustav Moller’s first-rate 2018 drama about an emergency operator that never leaves his side. Just as that movie was a showcase for leading man Jakob Cedergren, “7500” puts Gordon-Levitt 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 that gut-wrenching pace, and a 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 on modern anxieties into escapism. There’s a cathartic power to watching these circumstances unfold with a committed hero at their center. “7500” is an exhilarating 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. The movie keeps that hope alive right down to the breathless finale, when it seems as if the world will never sit still again, even after the engine sputters to a stop and the eerie calm returns.
“7500” premieres on Amazon Prime on Thursday, June 18.