For Your Safety...

Occupied: Rachel McAdams in 'Red Eye'

Travel is war these days. So says a matronly airline passenger in Wes Craven's Red Eye, right before she boards a plane with an assassin. Combat Mom doesn't know that she's flying the friendly skies with a killer; her solemn proclamation refers to the whiner in the check-in line who's chewing out the airport staff about the inconveniences of modern-day transport. For those of us horror fans who plop down $8.50 to temporarily replace our real-life fears with more abstract boogeymen, the old lady's metaphor seems appropriate. War is not about hunting down Al Qaeda or snuffing out Iraqi insurgents or avenging the victims of 9/11. War just means having to take your shoes off when you go through the metal detector or missing your flight because too many businessmen in the line in front of you volunteered to have their suitcases checked.

Which leads us to what may be the first post-"post 9/11" movie of the year: a fear-of-flying flick in which all the suspense centers on mundane safety regulations: silencing cell phones during takeoff, watching your step as you exit the moving walkway, avoiding any nominally sketchy dudes who may or may not be jihadists. In Red Eye, our bland terrorist is even blue-eyed: Jack Rippner (Cillian Murphy) is a coach-class regular who has been hired not to snuff the president or unleash germ warfare on a major metropolis, but to take out the director of Homeland Security. (The day when there's no one left to tell us whether the advisory system is at a level of "yellow" or "orange" --that's when we'll know the terrorists have won.)

In the window seat next to him is Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), a heart-of-gold hotel clerk whom Jack needs to make an in-flight call that will help him complete the crime. Jack has no knife or gun, so if Lisa doesn't do what he demands, he will threaten her with his only weapon: his skull, which delivers a mean headbutting. Then he will do the one thing frequent flyers fear the most: He will talk and talk and talk about his plans while she's stuck there next to him. So yeah--travel is war. And war is hell. And hell is other people.

Have post-9/11 precautions declawed the airline-hijacking movie? Since security has already stripped our villain of anything more lethal than tweezers, and Jack admits from the very beginning that he doesn't plan on ambushing the whole plane ("I'm not suicidal"), Lisa faces no immediate danger. Why she doesn't immediately report him to a stewardess and have his free peanuts shipped out to Guantanamo is beyond me. So as Red Eye ticks through each minute of its excruciatingly slow and uneventful first half, a different sort of dread takes over: What if nothing happens? What if we're waiting here until the credits roll and nothing blows up and there are no casualties and the plane lands safely? What if our anticipation of the Big Terrorist Act never finds release, and we're stuck with this same dull, nagging, underlying uneasiness forever?

The question is still there after you leave the theater, and the answer may be in another film: Before Cillian Murphy's freckled mug contorted into Jack's grimace, the actor ratcheted up his fearmongering as the Scarecrow in Batman Begins. That film taught us to believe that "men fear most what they cannot see" and urged us to "embrace your worst fear"; Red Eye does neither. Instead, it finds Jack asking Lisa about the most frightening moment in her life: "Were you scared because it was beyond your control?" "No," she replies, "I just wanted to make sure it would never happen again."

There are those pundits who have said that if 9/11 hadn't happened, pop culture would have invented it. But I fear the opposite will be true: that because 9/11 happened, the very people who understand what we're most afraid of might never invent it again. What will happen when there's no creative outlet for this fear? How do you fight the what-ifs if you can't see them played out on screen? Well, in that case, maybe Jack Rippner has something to teach us after all: Your only weapon is your head.

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