Through films like Flightplan, Soul Plane, and White House Down, it has taken over a decade for Hollywood to arrive at Non-Stop. Showing the vitality of Liam Neeson carrying a gun and a broken heart, Non-Stop recently gave the new action hero one of his biggest box office weekends so far. Involving an air marshal using a particular set of skills to hunt and kill someone threatening his plane (to paraphrase Taken), the film may seem like a generic Neeson actioner. But while his character might be a composite of previous roles, the anxiety he tackles within this film is fresh. Considering its box office success (and my mother's intense experience in watching the movie), Non-Stop works efficiently as a thriller in 2014 because it provides viewers with imagery of in-flight chaos not seen since before 9/11. It is also the indication of a natural progression for how Hollywood films are expressing our anxieties about flying after September 11th, a mode of transportation that is said to be the safest way to travel, but also makes for many vulnerable circumstances.
When flying became associated with a real threat after September 11th, Hollywood dealt with plane imagery differently. Audiences, or at least the studios telling them what they're ready for, had become more aware of the sensitive conditions of air transportation. A plane is a secluded space of claustrophobic quarters, filled with strangers who simply need to pass through security. Similarly, there seemed to be a limit to how much modern planes would be incorporated in a Hollywood film.
The type of silly action movies that tried to use an airplane as a claustrophobic setting for overcoming terror (like Passenger 57, Executive Decision, Air Force One, and even Con-Air among others) became relics of more free-flowing anxieties. Though people may have yearned for machine gun bursts of patriotism like that expressed in Air Force One's awesomely bad jingoism (don't spoil the college game for Harrison Ford's president), there was an absence of plane-centered films. In many ways, there wasn't much modern aviation either.
One of the first plane-centric films, with only a disaster in its own existence, was Bruno Barreto's View from the Top. A Gwyneth Paltrow comedy, it was a PG-13 Showgirls for flight attendants with Mark Ruffalo cast as a lead hunk. The film struggled to land a release date. I can't confirm just yet with an actual source if on Sept 10th, 2001 the film was set to be released that upcoming Christmas, but there is truth that the film couldn't stick to its initial new April 2002 release, and had to go back to March 2003. Though there are other examples of films with a similar schedule fate, the sensitivity factor for the flight attendant comedy was deemed too high. Barry Sonnenfeld's Big Trouble was able to show a nuclear bomb being smuggled onto a plane around the same time of View from the Top's initial release of April 2002, but the amount of planes, was apparently deemed too much. (A juicy tidbit in View from the Top folklore suggests there is a scene where Mike Myers instructs the crew on how to deal with terrorist situations. Is the film better without it, soul and quality wise? Like the actioner "Nosebleed" that would have had Jackie Chan as a window-washer at the WTC, we will never know.)
With the post 9/11 plane movie, it seemed like if a movie involved flying or planes, we needed our mainstream image of flight to be from planes already revered; stories that focused on flight that would talk about great pilots, great teams, or grand moments of aviation. Stories from a different era of aviation, and often within war context. Flying stories like Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (which includes a crash into Beverly Hills in which DiCaprio's Howard Hughes is the one most injured), John Moore's Flight of the Phoenix from 2004, Tony Bill's Flyboys in 2006, Mira Nair's Amelia in 2009, and Anthony Hemingway's Red Tails from the very beginning on 2012. Paul Greengrass' 2006 movie United 93 fits into this category as well, its heroic story closest to a modern piece, but one that has audiences confronting plane tragedy with historical context.
After 9/11, contemporary movies with planes at the center fell into two different categories. If a plane was predominantly involved, it wouldn't be a direct part of the problem. Movies like Wes Craven's Red Eye and Robert Schwentke's Flightplan, released a month within each other in 2005, heightened the vulnerabilities felt when flying, that of being isolated yet crammed in a small space of which there is no escape, amongst passengers and/or flight crew that toy with trust. The two films focus on women who have a frighteningly stressful flight experience, to the great and only inconvenience to passengers. While these are stories of weird flight mates who violate the trust of a passenger, like Cillian Murphy's terrorist Jackson Rippner in Red Eye or the evil air marshal and flight attendant in Flightplan, these are essentially stories of trauma at 37,000 feet, with the women facing emotional scars. But in terms of movie plane chaos, the horror within these movies for other passengers is that their sensitivities are provoked, or that the entertainment of the flight becomes an interactive theater experience, complete with being accosted by a woman whose insecurities may not be totally unfounded. The planes themselves are not the center issue, and are able to excuse themselves peacefully; no deaths come to pilots or innocent passengers.
If a commercial plane within a contemporary plane movie were to reach a destroyed fate, where the anxieties of a doomed plane would be visualized, with pilots killed in the process, it would be within the safety of comedy. As released in May 2004, Soul Plane was one of the first modern plane-centric films to show the mid-flight death of a pilot (Snoop Doog dies after eating Godfrey's mushrooms), not to mention a crash landing (Kevin Hart lands the airliner in a park, where the plane's rims are stolen).
Continuing that mindset two years later, and four months after United 93, was David R. Ellis' Snakes on a Plane in 2006. The bizarre pre-viral film that parodied encountering terrorism made a joke out of safe flying, taking viewers back in the direction of Airplane!. This film too, featuring a man tired of "these monkey-loving snakes on a Monday-to-Friday plane," features the death of a pilot, along with a crash-landing by an unexpected aviator (instead of Soul Plane's Hart, it's a video gamer played by Kenan Thompson).
In terms of witnessing commercial American movie plane crashes, it was not until 2009 that the multiplex saw a plane completely destroyed in such a disturbing manner. Using the visual to create a sense of horror that is later connected to the apocalypse, director Alex Proyas gave us a very disturbing and random plane crash in Knowing. Presented as one of many tragedies that a code-cracking Nicolas Cage is trying to solve, the film features the sight of a plane hurtling from the sky onto an open field. When Cage runs over to the wreckage, he sees passengers running away and on fire. But the crash's usage within the story does not call for a first-person POV from inside the plane.
After Knowing, we very slowly started our re-acceptance of plane crashing imagery, but more specifically, that of being inside a plane while it reaches a terrifying fate. Joe Carnahan's The Grey, released January of 2012, was one of the first, if not the first, to put a viewer inside a plane as it begins to crash. With no explanation offered during the moment, it has a visceral experience of a plane being destroyed in mid-air, all happening suddenly while passengers are asleep. Carnahan's crash, (perhaps the most disturbing ever filmed) has a great sense of helplessness; the only choice a passenger has is to fasten their seat belt.
At the end of 2012, Robert Zemeckis gave us another one of his chaotic plane crashes of modern aviation (after 2000's Cast Away) with Flight, a movie that also uses a plane crash as central moment. This crash includes casualties, to passengers and crew, and raises the question of pilot error. It also marks a step back (or forward) to the type of comfort we had even in the year 2000, with vicious first-person movie plane chaos like the triggering tragedies of James Wong's Final Destination or Zemeckis' Cast Away, both of which play a pivotal part in the fate of its characters, and include complete plane destruction.
Something very curious then happened not too long after the release of The Grey and Flight during the 2013 summer movie season. In a year that re-introduced cinematic assaults on the White House, a symbol of the testing of national security with an event that throws terrorism back into our faces, the spectacle of plane crashes became a visual trend for at least three films.
Starting in May, Shane Black's Iron Man 3 was the first of three films in the summer to feature airplanes destroyed by explosions mid-flight. Like Non-Stop, it raises the question of security when it shows the Iron Patriot suit (emblazoned in stars and stripes) actually killing people on the plane, before sending all of the passengers into the air, of which Iron Man has to save them. The following month, Marc Forster's World War Z stepped it up by using a plane as a plot progression device to figure out its infamously troublesome third act. When zombies are shown terrorizing a different section of the plane, Brad Pitt's character deduces that there is nothing that can be saved of the airliner or its passengers, so he detonates a grenade on board.
In a remarkable span of time that marks only a week, Roland Emmerich's White House Down showed us Air Force One being shot down in the sky once again, but with a type of nonchalance that is very curious. While Emmerich is using the president's plane as another spectacle for blockbuster destruction, it is also interesting how much time he allots the symbol's descent. A rocket hits the plane in the sky, and it begins to keel over. On fire, it simply descends into the clouds in one long shot.
All of these were given their little party in summer 2013 with Pedro Almodovar's I'm So Excited!. It's a Spanish production, sure, but one that came out around the same time as these three films, and framed its sexual madcappery around the malfunctions of a plane. Change the "crash positions" in Airplane! to an orgy, and that is how Almodovar's film pokes at the anxieties of dying while flying. With this film and the three others of 2013, plane crashes have become a progressively lighter subject.
Months after the summer of 2013, we now have Jaume Collet-Serra's Non-Stop, which continues our progression in how American multiplex popcorn-consumers are presented plane movie chaos. Expanding on the themes and horrors from plane films before it, Non-Stop is one of the very first to show someone combating against real terror on a mid-flight commercial airliner. Collet-Serra's film has the psychological focus of Flightplan and Red Eye, connecting the event to personal tragedy, but has a higher body count (including a pilot) while Neeson plays detective. Another significant elaboration is that one of those casualties is a passenger, a twist that many previous serious movies about flying anxieties have specifically avoided.
With Neeson's latest, the sensitivities about flying have evolved from being horrifically exemplified in movies like Knowing and then The Grey. They have now become involved in debates about national and personal security. The question of who to trust with our sense of safety has gone beyond that of fellow passengers, and to the suspicious backgrounds of those who hide behind locked cabin doors. Or, as with Non-Stop, those who carry a weapon on board, while holding the nation's trust in their anonymous hands.
Still, the very PG-13 Non-Stop is only a gradual step in multiplex visitors accepting the possible terrors of an in-flight experience. After the terrorists have been defeated in this film, and when the plane does finally have to crash land, there is no grave or immediate threat of death to innocent passengers. This is exemplified by the final piece of entertaining tension in which Non-Stop tries to convince the viewer that a little girl might fly out of a damaged plane and into an engine. This roller coaster moment echoes the kid gloves encouragement a flight attendant says to get the girl on the plane, and to accept the ordeal of flying: "I know flying can be scary, but it's actually quite fun."
Considering how many of these aforementioned films would have been treated like View from the Top were they set to be released after 9/11, we can look to plane crash movies to see how our sensitivities absolutely do ease and evolve. Similarly, sensitivities don't have to rule out a discussion concerning how certain images in media makes us feel with nervous news headline context. There is a means in entertainment to accept that which may happen in real life, and with a sense of security. As much as Non-Stop may pontificate about the illusion of control when flying, it does ask many necessary questions with its images of commercial plane chaos of which we are slowly being re-familiarized. Do we feel safer now? Is it possible for us to feel safe like we used to? Will the action genre ever feel comfortable showing plane chaos like in Executive Decision or Air Force One again? One statement of safety remains consistent throughout these movie plane crashes — the value of seat belts.