For a film that may well take a nosedive after its opening weekend, doomed to be forgotten like 2011's Unknown, the last collaboration between director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson, Non-Stop is made with far more care and visual detail than you might expect. In the opening scene, the title appears as a vaporous apparition on a rain-pelted windshield, which is quickly juxtaposed with a shot of the weathered face of Neeson, who plays Bill Marks, a U.S. air marshal and ghost of a man still coping, by way of liquor and cigarettes, with his young daughter's death. Even if it's a company vehicle, the make and model of his Chevy SUV—at least 10 years old by the look of the dashboard—implies he's a guy who's both stuck in the past and prefers to buy American.
And even if his senses are numbed, as indicated by an aural fuzziness and the film frame's blurred edges, Bill is sharp enough to note the heart-surgery scar on the chest of Jen (Julianne Moore), a passenger who's seated next to him on a flight from New York to London, and whose shortcomings will soon become useful to the plot. Non-Stop is both perceptive and cheeky, getting ample thematic mileage from a line like, "control is an illusion," while also packing a ready-to-blow bomb inside a briefcase full of cocaine. It's the sort of film that leaves you hopeful that Bill's tool for stirring his morning whiskey—a toothbrush—is, perhaps, a shrewd, offhand nod to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok."
Such readings might give Non-Stop more credit than it deserves, but the movie remains a fairly solid high-altitude thriller, in the vein of 1996's Executive Decision, another Joel Silver-produced airline actioner. Its efficiency begins in the airport before departure, where the diverse bunch of passengers is introduced not just as a who's-who of characters, but as a whodunit's parade of suspects. And the efficiency continues shortly after takeoff, when Bill starts receiving texts from an anonymous passenger, who threatens to kill someone on board every 20 minutes until he's paid $150 million. Collet-Serra opts to blazon these texts on screen amid the action, like a latter-day, cinematic retread of VH1's Pop-Up Video. It's a device that initially reeks of gimmicky distraction, and yet, apart from helping to distinguish the film's aesthetic, it quickly proves beneficial in terms of pacing, as the movie needn't constantly display a phone to tell its visual story; the camera can move about the cabin freely, accompanied by the tech-y, terroristic-threat equivalent of subtitles.
Naturally, Non-Stop uses post-9/11 paranoia to provoke both its viewers and its characters. It repeatedly pins its focus on possible, stereotypical culprits (like a dark-featured bald man and an Arab), and it eventually sees the passengers rally together, United 93-style, when they come to suspect that Bill is the one causing this nightmare at 40,000 feet. When Bill, with the aid of Jen and Nancy (Michelle Dockery), a flight attendant he trusts, ushers everyone to the back of the plane in hopes of isolating the threat, an especially sensitive New York cop (Corey Stoll) even voices the scenario's similarities to that ill-fated September 11 flight. But Non-Stop also transcends its red-herring stereotypes and ostensibly dated themes. (Spoilers herein.) The Arab, Fahim Nasir (Omar Metwally), turns out to be a doctor essential to Bill's success, and the marked, overall diversity of the accomplished cast, including Scoot McNairy and Lupita Nyong'o, secure the movie as an equal-opportunity, everyone-is-suspect mystery.
What Non-Stop ultimately fails to grasp is that there's another stereotype—the young, disgruntled, bone-to-pick war vet—who's rapidly losing palatability in the bad-guy department. And in addition to neglecting to explore the justifiable national-security indictments its antagonist presents as motive, the movie misses the fact that it already had its cultural commentary licked. As passengers' smartphone vids of a gun-wielding Bill go viral, and pings from the terrorist pile up in the frame around him, and his superiors believe him guilty, and the national news reports the same, we're shown that the true terror can be media itself, engulfing us as it induces paranoia, promotes distrust of government officials, and elicits potentially fatal knee-jerk judgments. Non-Stop would have been a truly killer ride if it knew what it boasted before it unmasked its baddie and over-expressed its point.