NON-STOP Review: No, Really. You Can Stop Now.
And where there isn’t yet a pin on my map, chances are good there will be one there before the year is over. As my appreciation for, and consumption of, foreign films has grown, I’ve become adept at reading subtitles. Some are easier to read than others; some are better paced than others; some are better worded than others. Regardless, reading a movie is not only something I’ve done a lot of, it’s something I embrace.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra‘s latest film, Non-Stop, is not a foreign film, but it still requires a lot of reading, because one of the gimmicks of the film is that its hero receives a series of mysterious text messages. Aside from stylistic presentation (which is visually interesting to a point), the big difference between reading these texts and reading the subtitles of a foreign film is that subtitles are actually interesting, whereas reading texts is not so much reading as it is an exercise in watching someone type on a cellphone, or watching someone wait to be typed to on a telephone. If you think that makes for arduous film-watching, go to the head of the class. And this is only the start of this film’s problems.
Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, a United States Air Marshal who brings with him baggage both literal and figurative. While on a trans-Atlantic flight to London, Marks receives a text message demanding that $150MM be deposited into a bank account. For every 20 minutes this demand is not met, a passenger will die. After the first death, Marks, with help from flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) and passenger Jen (Julianne Moore), must find out who is making the threats and what they really want before more people die.
One by one, Marks attempts to eliminate each of the passengers as a possible suspect. However, the tables slowly turn on the marshal, who goes from being the only man who can save the plane to being the man suspected of hijacking it for the ransom money. Ratcheting up the intensity of the situation is the threat of a bomb found in the briefcase of the flight’s other marshal.
Texting is so commonplace today, it’s understandable to want to integrate it into the plot of a film. It also allows for the kind of anonymity that a telephone call coming from inside a flying airplane wouldn’t easily allow. The challenge in so prominently featuring texting, and what director Collet-Serra fails to understand about it, is that both the mechanics of texting and the prose of texting are terribly dull. Watching any actor, even as one as entertaining as Neeson, read a short statement, think about it for a second, type a short statement in return, and wait for a response – over and over and over again – does nothing to build suspense. In fact, it does just the opposite, and when the foundation of your thriller is boring, your thriller is boring.
The other great flaw of Non-Stop is that it is built on the premise that you never know who the good guys or bad guys are. This by itself is okay, but because the film is populated with characters that strain to achieve two dimensions (three-dimensionality is a pipe dream for these people), you simply don’t care. Is the bad guy the suspiciously-acting bald man with the attitude problem (Corey Stoll)? Is the bad guy the Middle-Eastern-looking doctor? Is the bad guy the unassuming woman (Julianne Moore) who insists on a window seat and is more than willing to help Marks, no questions asked? Is the bad guy the young black man with the chip on his shoulder who won’t take off his sunglasses and defies Marks’ authority? Is the bad guy the late-replacement flight attendant (Lupita Nyong’o).
Attention passengers, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to to Flight Filmmaking 101, a non-stop from Central Casting to a theater near you. All that’s missing is a cute kid for the hero to … oh wait. There is one of those, too.
And then, of course, there is Marks himself, who goes through most of the movie with an air of suspicion about him as well. To reveal any more about him here would be to take away from the eventual reveal of his character, so I won’t do that. However, the one thing the filmmakers make sure you understand is that Marks has a drinking problem – not just because they show him mixing booze with his coffee (in his truck) before he enters the airport to board the flight, but because he stirs it with a toothbrush. THAT makes it serious. His drinking ultimately becomes something not that defines him, but that others define him by, the way people might define another person as a Catholic or a dentist. Marks is a man with a drinking problem, a flaw that is never developed or explored, which changes it from flaw to trait, rendering it inert.
The rest of the film is best left unspoiled, other than to mention that even with how sensational the plot is, certain events greatly strain credulity, and the bad guy reveal at the end not only exposes dreadful coincidences that replace good storytelling, the motivation of the bad guy is lazy, if not insulting. And if you are looking for the action you see in the trailer, don’t worry if you get to the movie late. Nothing thrilling happens until about the last 15 minutes. The film up to that point substitutes action with Now You See Me-like sweeping camera movements, which I suppose is something considering the film takes place in a giant tube.
The core cast is a good one with very little to work with. Given that the film went into post-production in February 2013, months before 12 Years a Slave was released, I’m willing to let them slide on missing the Lupita train (she’s barely used here), but veteran character man Stoll is grossly underutilized and Moore summons her best Moore-like female lead to get through the film. As for Neeson, all he does is add another notch in his cinematic shoulder-holster. (Although really, we should all be so lucky to be this successful at 61 years old.)
Non-Stop, with its troubled(ish) everyman anti-hero defying the odds under impossible circumstances, will eventually go down as an inferior entry in the Die Hard vein of action films, deleted from our memories like another forgotten text message.