Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore
“How do you kill someone in a crowded plane and get away with it??”
So you’ve seen one recent Liam Neeson film, you’ve seen them all right? That was my impression upon walking into see this film in a tiny cinema which had a bizarre choice of 6 kids films and Non-Stop. Between a choice of Mr.Peabody & Sherman, whose poster forced actual vomit from my throat and a new film that I’ve probably seen before I opted for the less gross option.
The film opens with an introduction to our protagonist Bill Marks who is an US Air Marshall with a non-too stable drinking problem. This allows Liam to dust off his little used gruff, troubled, alcoholic anti-hero type who ironically for an air marshal, doesn’t actually like flying. After some typical conversations which ranged somewhere between mumbling and crusty anger he reluctantly steps upon an international flight from New York to London. We are gradually introduced to a relatively large series of supporting actors who are all sharing his aluminium cage and also to Bill Marks’ fancy encrypted Air Marshal super-phone. Upon it he can communicate with his bosses in the States without fear of any other passengers intercepting the messages…but wait, someone has.
Not unlike the unsolicited phone messages we receive from companies who want to sell us their latest piece of crap product; Mr Neeson esquire starts receiving messages from an unknown sender…threatening messages. “Unless the airline transfers $150million into this account, someone will die on this plane every 20minutes”.
That’s actually not that bad of a hook and it succeeded in mellowing my pre-conceptions. What followed was an Agatha Christie style whodunit with a generous helping of modern action thriller, mixed with the undeniably unsettling timing of a real life plane going missing near Malaysia and no-one knowing why. I certainly think this fact had an effect on ramping up the tension. Everyone is a suspect and as a series of events starts to unfold upon the plane your mind is convincingly flip-flopped between those suspects whilst you feel the terror of the moment.
I have been on a lot of flights and do not have a fear of flying, statistically it is the safest form of transport but that doesn’t eliminate the underlying tension of modern air travel. This comes largely from the fact you have no control over your environment: you can’t just pull-over and get off. Mix this with a storyline that has enough of a believable streak to make it feasible then as you sit there glued to the screen, the sweat rolls down your back.
With these types of films there is always a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved but for large parts it was all well scripted and well acted. Unfortunately it has its moments of formulaic nuances and contrivances which you can’t help but cringe at. My biggest criticism was the finale. Not so much the events that unfolded but rather there seemed to be quality dip. It was as if those that penned the rest of the film fell out when it came to the end of the screenplay and had to leave it to another to fill in the dialogue and scene gaps. I felt myself shouting disappointing “No’s” and “Why’s” in my head.
The slow ramping of tension through the film was extremely well delivered. I couldn’t sit still; the tension causing me to wriggle like a toddler with nappy rash. That ramping up of the pressure was shown to be particularly successful due to the fact the old Jewish couple to my right who were delivering a scene by scene commentary were not left as a bloody mess for the cinema staff to clean up at the end due to the fact that I simply didn’t want to miss a moment.
On a plane of over 200 people this obviously gives the script writers and director lots of avenue for supporting performances. Combining this with the whodunit genre at 33000ft keeps the viewer guessing throughout. This is where the film is at its best, some of the characters are well written and portrayed well enough to keep you on edge about everyone. Julianne Moore’s character is an odd one, even an actor of her calibre only just manages to keep her believable. I understand that the screenplay is written so that you’re on edge about every character so therefore she, like everyone, can’t behave as you would expect but the character is just well…weird.
On balance this film probably benefited from the current world events in aviation I discussed earlier, amping up the tension – the makers of the film couldn’t have predicted this. They have though tapped into a genuine fear and have highlighted some valid risks in air-travel with which people can empathise with. Given Liam Neeson’s recent turkeys and (to be cruel but accurate) the quality gulf in the director and writer’s work to date I was more than pleasantly supplied by 90% of the film. A better written end would have pushed it into the 7s, a less currently scared critic may have gone for a 6 but for its clear success in delivering emotional change and a good story for the most part, I’ve sat fists clenched on the middle seat between the two.