Following his Oscar nominated short film Everything will be Okay, German writer-director Patrick Vollrath makes his feature debut with the new Prime Original 7500. However, the intimacy of his earlier work is not lost in this transition to bigger budget and higher concept storytelling.
Following an eerie opening sequence of silent security camera footage as it tracks suspicious individuals through an airport, we are introduced to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s lead, Tobias Ellis. He is the co-pilot onboard a routine flight from Berlin to Paris. Once the passengers have boarded and the checks have been completed, the plane takes off into a stormy night that is soon to become a nightmare. Shortly into the journey, a brutal melee erupts when three armed men descend on the cockpit. After the initial assault fails, the hostage situation begins. Tobias is given two choices: allow the terrorists to execute the passengers one by one or let them inside the cockpit to take control of the aircraft.
The plot is a simple one, but this is exactly what makes 7500 memorable. The opposite was true of the Liam Neeson vehicle Non-Stop: another hostage-situation-come-murder-mystery thriller set onboard an airliner. The protagonist was an anti-hero cliche, the story tiresome, and the ending ridiculous. 7500 has less in common with the likes of that film or Air Force One (which was essentially ‘Die Hard on a plane’) than with 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The latter follows the hijacking of a New York City subway train by Robert Shaw’s gunmen and their ransom negotiations with Walter Matthau’s Transit Police Lieutenant. Likewise, 7500 focuses on Tobias’ desperate attempt to appeal to one of the terrorists – an adolescent of just 18 years – to help him save themselves and the passengers.
This plot is not entirely fresh, then – but thriller plots rarely are. They rise and fall based on their execution, their style, their tone their manipulations of narrative structure, time, and space. In that regard, 7500 is a success. The strength of the film comes principally from its ability to build a sense of clinging claustrophobia and searing suspense. Vollrath achieves this, on the one hand, by telling the entire story from the single location of the cockpit, with only a monitor to show us what is happening in the rest of the aircraft. Not only is Tobias stuck inside but for much of the second act he faces a continuous bombardment as the terrorists try to break through the door. With the dark and stormy conditions outside the plane and the onslaught outside the door, our main character is well and truly stuck. Rather than a stirring soundtrack, we are plunged into a stark soundscape consisting of the assault, the noises from the aircraft, and the cries of the injured. The audience is, as a result, kept constantly on edge, this pressure-cooker scenario being maintained until the end credits roll.
The film also elects to tell the story in real time. From take-off to landing, the audience goes through one and a half hours of the worst night in Tobias Ellis’ life. We are with him for every minute of the madness. As a result, the audience becomes an observer, seemingly abandoned in the action alongside the main character. The effect is developed early as the camera pans back and forth during a conversation with the pilot (Carlo Kitzlinger), turning as one would if they were actually present. Once the terror begins, this sense of directly experiencing the events gives potentially mundane actions like first-aid delivery or pilot protocol a nail-biting edge.
Yet, what carries the audience through this ordeal are the two primary performances. Gordon-Levitt does a good job at portraying an ordinary man flung into extraordinary circumstances. The tight pacing of the film allows him minimal opportunity for expository back story, but he does a lot with what he is given. He’s an Old Hollywood kind of an actor, taciturn and non-demonstrative, focussed on convincing us of the reality of the moment rather than impressing us with affectations and tics. Without ever sounding forced – something which these scenes often do – he tells us all we need to know about to Tobias in order for us to invest in him. Immediately, he feels completely authentic in this role, partly because of the technical jargon he delivers throughout. The performance is quiet and subdued to begin with, but his stoic exterior shatters along the way, leaving him at once broken but also determined to save the situation.
However, the standout of 7500 is one of Tobias’ antagonists, Vedat, portrayed by Austrian actor Omid Memar. He is the youngest of the terrorists and appears apprehensive as he delivers their demands through the phone to the cockpit (we also see him on the monitor). The script demands from him an emotional, dialled-up performance from the beginning and he carries it through to horrifying highs and saddening lows. Yet, he is not just a villain (like Gary Oldman’s Russian baddie in Air Force One or Robert Shaw’s Mr Blue) and this is the key to the film’s central relationship. Vedat is sympathetic from the moment we see that he is conflicted about whether he is doing the right thing. In this respect, he also becomes Tobias’ ally against the more committed assailants.
Some reviews have accused the film of perpetuating Islamophobia, given the choice of villains in the film and especially due to the suspicions encouraged by the opening sequence. However, this seems to miss the point of the complicated central dynamic between Tobias and Vedat. If anything, this relationship humanises what in other films (London has Fallen, for example) would simply be ‘the enemy’ and hints at how a fundamentally good person has been manipulated by pathological people and destructive doctrines. It is careful to develop shades of grey in this respect, with Vedat’s accomplices being closer to the hardcore evil-doers we would expect. But even then Vedat’s conflicted soul looms over the whole film; due to him, we lose the all-too-comfortable binary of good guys and bad guys.
7500 is earnestly committed to treating its subject matter with complexity, going so far as to open with a quotation from Gandhi: “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. We assume from the outset that this will refer to terrorism. This is later clarified when one of the antagonists reads out a manifesto declaring that their crashing of the plane into a city is intended as an act of revenge for civilians who have been killed by Western drone strikes. However, a duel meaning emerges towards the end when Tobias is given the opportunity to kill one of the men responsible for executing someone close to him. He is confronted with the choice between starting the cycle of retribution over again, or rising above, being the one to stop it.
Overall, 7500 is both a tense and enjoyable thriller driven by clenching claustrophobia and suspense, and an engaging character study. The performances are all grounded and realistic, which makes their predicament all the more gripping. At its heart is the relationship that develops between pilot and would-be terrorist – one of the many moral dilemmas that surface in this surprisingly thoughtful film. It’s a skilfully constructed, genuinely adult thriller of the kind we see all too rarely these days.