Non-Stop is the latest film from Jaume Collet-Serra, a film director better known for horrors such as House of Wax, Orphan and the psychological thriller, Unknown.
The film starts with Liam Neeson’s character, Federal Air Marshal Bill Marks, in a car outside the airport. He is alone, clasping a bottle of whisky. He is a depressed alcoholic. His wife has left him, and we later learn he is stricken with grief because his daughter died of cancer. Jaded by life and in pain – he is not looking forward to boarding British AquaAtlantic Flight 10 from New York to London.
With out-of-focus opening scenes, I wondered when the 1st assistant camera operator was going to wake up; but then I quickly realised the not-so-good focus pulling was probably artistic licence. It became clear that this was to do with the characterisation of Air Marshall Bill Marks. He’s not in good shape. He’s been drinking, he is in grief, and he is about to board a seven and half hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Enough to make anyone a bit fuzzy.
At the airport, we are introduced to some of the characters from a distance. I must admit, I was a little riled by the cinematic gaze on Omar Metwally, the actor who plays a character who sports an Islamic-looking scholarly beard and prayer hat. It was as if to say: ‘It’s him! He’s the villain!’
But, as it turned out, I was totally taken in by this – along with the seemingly careless focus pulling – I really thought this film was going to be a chore to watch. In the aeroplane, the cinematography quickly improved and I was glad to see Metwally’s character Fahim Nasir run against Hollywood stereotypes. The man with the prayer hat and scholarly beard turns out to be a doctor of molecular neurology. Could this mark a hegemonic shift in Hollywood?
The script was intelligent in parts, especially the ‘One year free travel,’ line used by Air Marshall Marks in order to calm people down. The line, and the reaction of the crowd, was terrific social commentary. It’s the idea that we’re all neo-liberal now: consumers understand consumption, even when their lives are in apparent danger.
Tensions are created by twists in the plot, whilst the twists themselves are designed to make us question the Air Marshal’s judgement. Is he a hero or an anti-hero? In parts of the film, Neeson’s character dips into villainy: he handles or possibly mishandles the air hostess after she discovers a murder. A suspect dies right in front of him after being ruffed up. We are left wondering about his health and his grip on reality. This gaslighting of our hero happens while the villain is still unknown.
As footage of Marks’ erratic behaviour makes world news, his reputation is destroyed by the press, like the lost honour of Katharina Blum. By the same token, for most of the film, we are lead to believe he is the anti-hero. This is suggested by the poor camera focus and reference to alcoholism in the beginning, although it is never suggested his judgement is poor.
When the villain does appear, he is poorly developed. The character could fit with the kind of baddie found in Scooby Doo cartoons. This reflects badly on the film but, then again, some of the villains in history have been utterly ridiculous too – not to name any names.
In Die Hard, the villain was amusing and evil in a positive way: he was a worthy prey. Some, such as Alan Rickman, elevated villainy on screen to an art. Alas, here, despite apparently paying tribute to Die Hard, with lines such as: ‘You’re a son of a gun’, the villain is a trite failure.
Having said this, the self-doubt of the protagonist combined with the tension and pace of the film which is maintained until the end, make it worth watching.
The film score is excellent, throughout. I loved how sound merged with music to create tension. Few scores do it as expertly.
In the second half of the film, a theme emerges which propels the narrative to a resolution. It is always necessary to resolve the disequilibrium created by the villain, viz the plot serving line: ‘Give me the money or else!’ Here, the lead protagonist’s character is also in doubt. He is sure of himself, but can we be sure of him? Perhaps Federal Air Marshall Bill Marks is delusional – no-body knows. With the strange goings-on, other characters start to vie for control.
Thus, Non-Stop visits the theme of leadership and group dynamics. Sadly, what quickly emerges is parochial masculinity; unlike, for example, the interesting group dynamics explored by Reginald Rose in the classic film, 12 Angry Men. Whilst it’s true that there was the immediacy of a ticking bomb to deal with, the regression into a testosterone-bathed group dynamic is tiresome. Ultimately, while these dynamics propel the narrative, the reproduction of patriarchy serves to undermine the credibility of film.
The Air Marshall, at times a dubious leader, knows exactly what to say in the least number of words. One gets the immediate feeling this comes from years of experience as a cop; certainly, Neeson’s many years experience as an actor delivers well.
And oddly, as the film morphs from a mystery-thriller to an action film, all of the emerging leaders are men. Women are marginal. The most prominent woman, Jen Summers played by Julianne Moore, is immaterial to the plot. The second cop, played by Corey Stoll, is a man; the Dr Fahim Nasir is a man, the programmer Zack White, played by Nate Parker, is a man; even the ‘token black teenager’, played by Corey Hawkins, is a man. His minor character becomes part of the alpha group.
Thus, in the quest to save the plane and to resolve the plot, the film changes. The sudden bravado is difficult to watch. It marks the point where Non-Stop changes from an intelligent mystery thriller with a great score to an action movie with action figures, all swimming in testosterone.
Ultimately, the camaraderie of the men was light entertainment sprinkled on top of plot that was in the process of being dismantled. The characters became little more than puppets on a string, serving the imperatives of an exposition which now needed to be resolved, so that everybody could be happy again.
The moment for this sort of cinema came in the late 1980s and 1990s when the genre was developed by Die Hard. The difference with this film is that the earlier film built tension throughout the film and which was maintained in a more sophisticated way, hence the success of the franchise and the creation of a new box office format.
Non-Stop doesn’t fit into the genre so well. The equivalent of “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!” here doesn’t come with the ‘motherfucker’ appendage. It’s the more polite, ‘he-does-this,-therefore-we-do-this’ version.
From this perspective, whilst the first half of Non-Stop was successful in building up the tension beautifully, the second half turns into a Die Hard tribute film with an audience-pleasing neat ending.
Non-Stop was released in the UK on 28 February, 2014.