A disaster on a plane? Now there’s a subject that would make a great spoof. Non-Stop though is no comedy, it is a serious, if unlikely, version of the popular misunderstood-hero-saves-the-day thriller. It is produced by Joel Silver, inventor of Ultimate Frisbee – although more relevantly here, producer of films such as Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.
Liam Neeson stars as Federal Air agent Bill Marks, a man who hates flying but now earns his living, erm, flying. He was in the New York police force and has the usual sad back story of these types of film heroes. Alcoholic and divorced, his early kindness to a little girl flags up his own sad experience with a young daughter.
The film is set almost entirely aboard a transatlantic flight to London with British Aqualantic, (a name that brings to mind so clearly crashing into the Atlantic that it would surely never be chosen by an airline). It starts with an interesting soundscape. We hear snippets of fellow traveller’s conversations as Marks clears security and gets on the plane. It’s a slow start, but nicely introduces us to the other characters. We have no idea what he does at this point, but there’s definitely something up – when he orders gin and tonic he gets a bottle of water and doesn’t complain.
The lack of possible locations available on a plane (cabin, cockpit, stewards’ area) was always going to limit the visual appeal of the film. A commercial passenger jets is very much a seen-one-seen-them-all type of vehicle – everyone has been on a plane and most people don’t enjoy the experience.
Neeson’s character doesn’t do small-talk. To begin with he’s too busy smoking in the toilet, as the film progresses he’s too busy doing what Federal Air Marshall’s are trained to do. A routine flight turns into a chance to put his anti-hijack skills into practice. Threatening text messages appear on his phone, floating up onto the screen so that we can read them. Soon the threatened violence begins. Can Marks save the day?
Neeson pulls the viewer into his character, all sad eyes and yawns before the action starts and focused determination when he’s up against it. But given the setting, the possibility of basically linear movement up and down the plane, Non-Stop was always going to struggle to build atmosphere. The film makers try to build tension – for example when the characters are looking at a TV monitor calling out when a passenger’s mobile phone rings. But that’s not very exciting visually. The soundtrack is called on to provide what the visuals lack.
With all the use of mobile phones and texting Non-stop will not age well. It is very much of its time, although it tries to inflation-proof itself for a few years by having the baddies demand an absurdly large amount of money. Their motives are unlikely, but overall Nonstop is a reasonable locked-room thriller.