Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Seventeen years ago, Harrison Ford grumbled four simple words that defined a genre, a demographic, and a country: "Get off my plane." In a pre-9/11 world, there was no shortage of jingoistic glee in a movie like Air Force One, in which a man's man American president doled out justice to a militia of Russian loyalist terrorists who made the silly mistake of attempting to hijack his flight home from Moscow. In 2014, we don't have the luxury of facing a plotline like this with reckless merriment. There's a damp gravity to the premise behind movies like Non-Stop, which in another time would have been nothing more than Taken on a Plane. But rigidly conscious of the connotations that attach to a story about a hijacking of a civilian international flight into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, Non-Stop doesn't play too fast and loose. It still plays, and has some good fun doing so, but carefully.
From the getgo, we're anchored into the grim narrative of Liam Neeson's U.S. Air Marshall Bill Marks, who settles his demons with a healthy spoonful of whiskey. A dutiful officer even when liquored up, Marks eyeballs every nameless face in London's Heathrow Airport, silently introducing the bevvy of characters who'll come into play later on. After takeoff, Marks finds himself on the unwitting prowl for the anonymous party who's attempting to take down the red-eye through a series of manipulative text messages, well-timed threats, and clandestine killings. Chatty passenger Julianne Moore and flight attendant Michelle Dockery join Marks in his efforts to identify the mysterious criminal before the entire aircraft falls to his or her whims. So less Taken, more Murder, She Wrote.
Our roundup of suspects challenges our (and their) preconceived notions, and quite laughably — most vocal among Neeson's fellow passengers are a white beta-male school teacher (Scoot McNairy), a black computer engineer with an attitude of entitlement (Nate Parker), a softspoken Middle Eastern surgeon whose headwear gets more than a few focal shots (Omar Metwally), a middle-aged white businessman whose latest account landed him more than your house is worth (Frank Deal), an irate black youngster draped in irreverence (Corey Hawkins), and a white, bald, machismo-howling New York cop who secretly accepts his gay brother (Corey Stoll). Just a few talking heads short of Do the Right Thing, Non-Stop manages to goof on each man's (notice that they're all men — Moore, Dockery, and a barely-in-the-movie Lupita Nyong’o are kept shy of the action for most of the film) distaste for and distrust of one another as they each try to sidle up to, or undermine the harried Marks.
Non-Stop plays an interesting game with its characters and its audience, simultaneously painting the ignorance of its characters with a thick coat of comedy while pointing its finger straight out at us with accusations that we, too, thought it was whoever we just learned it wasn't, and for all the wrong reasons. "Shame on you!" Non-Stop chides, adding, "But let's keep going, this is fun!"
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It is fun — that's the miraculous thing. Without any "Get off my plane"s or "Yippee ki yay"s, Non-Stop keeps its action genre silliness in check (okay, there is a moment involving an airborne gun that'll institute some serious laugh-cheers), investing all of its good time in the game of claustrophobic Clue that we can't help but enjoy. It sacrifices some of its charm in a heavy-handed third act, tipping to one side of what was a pretty impressive balancing act up until that point. But its falter is not one that drags down the movie entirely. Fun and excitement are restored, sincerity is maintained, and even a few moments of sensitivity creep their way through. We might not live in a world of President Harrison Fords any longer, but Air Marshall Liam Neesons could actually be a step up.
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The end of the world as we know it is marked by a number of familiar tropes. When surveying an endless wasteland, one often encounters the same remnants of our once-thriving civilization. Certain types of structures always seem to endure the cataclysm and sometimes even serve as refuge for the last pockets of humanity. We also typically catch glimpses of the ruins of iconic landmarks both foreign and domestic. Such staples are certainly alive and well in Joseph Kosinski’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi actioner Oblivion.
But is it realistic? Which buildings, installations, and monuments, if any, had the best change of actually weathering Armageddon?
John Blood, Senior Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and an a previous collaborator of Oblivion production designer Darren Gilford, burst the bubble. Picture the grand old libraries that always seem to survive the nuclear fallout or world-ending natural event relatively unscathed. Is there something about these old book depositories that make them ideal havens?
“From a purely physical point of view, they aren’t that much different from other buildings,” he says. “Maybe they are designed a bit more stoutly; books are heavy so there’s a little bit more robust structure to them. However the forces of the disaster will do the same thing to libraries as they would to any other structure.”
Architect Mark Reynolds emphasized that proximity to nuclear strikes must be accounted for. “In the small towns situated tens of miles away from major metropolitan areas, there would likely be minimal property destruction and we would still find city halls, libraries, schools, etc.,” he notes. Reynolds further argued that thematic effect trumps accuracy in this regard.
“In my opinion, the reason they use nice old libraries in these movies is they are trying to contrast our high level of accomplishment and civilization against our advanced ability to destroy these accomplishments.”
In Oblivion, we see the charred, but very much still standing remains of the arena in which the last Super Bowl was played. Were these temples to athletic glory built to last? Blood cries foul, stating, “If anything, they’re just more exposed to the elements.”
Another remnant of the past Oblivion that Blood believes would remain are our bridges. It’s common in post-apocalyptic cinema to see the towers of great suspension bridges protruding out of the scorched Earth, or sometimes the sea. Once again, these function as signposts for humanity’s long-obliterated dominance of the planet. Blood suggests the likelihood of bridges surviving nuclear fallout in some form isn’t that outlandish.
“Certain bridges are meant to be simultaneously light and graceful and symbolic, and last a good long while, but they’re made out of steel and stone just like anything else.”
Suddenly, Blood pulls up a poster for Oblivion that features Tom Cruise standing before the remains of what appears to be the Brooklyn Bridge. He immediately spots an architectural inaccuracy.
“I can’t look at this thing without thinking it looks wrong,” he says. Blood points out the various cables, big and small, and the way that they’re positioned. The massive cable stands out. “It’s called a catenary, you just hold a string at two ends and that’s the shape a cable makes. But that cable is not going downward. In other words, those cables should all be sloping to the right. They should go down to the center of the Earth instead of back to how they were when it was an upright bridge. It’s just wrong. So we don’t have gravity in the future? The gravity on the cables is based on when the bridge was upright, they did not correct it for when they tilted it.”
Finally we came to the subject of those obligatory fallen landmarks. By this point, Blood’s curiosity was piqued. As we discussed the structural durability of national monuments, he was watching an Oblivion trailer.
“If anything they’d be more fragile,” he says. “The Statue of Liberty keeps cropping up everywhere, doesn’t it? It’s in Planet of the Apes, and one of the asteroids just happened to hit it in Armageddon. But yeah, they would be more fragile. There’s a thin layer of copper [in the Statue of Liberty] that is about the thickness of a penny. That thing particularly would not last.”
Blood then came to a particular scene in the trailer that had him totally puzzled, and one that further casts doubt on the staying power of national monuments post-annihilation. After the cataclysmic events prior to the action of the film, the Washington Monument and The Capitol remain.
“That’s just silly,” Blood says. “What happened to the rest of the city of Washington D.C.? There is nothing stouter about those two landmarks than any other structure in that town.”
Reynolds also stresses the dubious nature of these landmarks withstanding the apocalypse. He points out that “reinforced concrete buildings can withstand the blast in the peripheral areas, but most of our major buildings, stadiums, and monuments are concentrated at the ‘bulls eye’ and therefore, most buildings would be destroyed.”
Oblivion production designer Darren Gilford says any inaccuracy is done for the sake of the audience. Watching Tom Cruise run past a unrecognizable skyscraper simply wouldn’t be interesting.
“I think you've got to play to the cinematic icons,” Gilford says. “I think if it was a generic building that could have been anywhere, I don't think it would have been as impactful.” He says the existence of Independence Day and Planet of the Apes are proof. There's something that resonates with an audience when they can see an iconic piece of architecture that they relate to that's obviously been put in a situation that's alien to their typical expectations or memories.”
So where would our architects of destruction seek shelter in the event of doom and calamity? Their congruent responses should sum up the faith we should all place in any building withstanding any sort of apocalypse.
“Underground. Unless it was a flood or tsunami, but if it’s anything that has any kind of dynamic action going on, I would prefer to be in a hole underground,” Blood confesses. Reynolds adds, “Underground or earth covered structures are the best shelters in the event of an apocalypse, however, if 23,000 nukes were set off, the air, water, and food sources would be irradiated and very few people would survive.”
Additional Reporting by Matt Patches
More: Tom Cruise Only Gets Hurt Handsomely'Oblivion': Post-Apocalyptic Future Is Appropriately GlossyRead Our Review of 'Oblivion'
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There are two scenarios that make collecting Criterion Blu-rays so incredibly rewarding. The first is when Criterion tenders amazing releases to movies you’ve never seen before. Much like the situation I found myself in with Brian DePalma’s Blow Out, there is nothing quite like discovering a film for the first time on Criterion Blu; few things are more cinematically idyllic. That being said, the scenario I prefer, and what has sent me sprinting back to acquire entries into the Criterion Collection again and again, is when it releases a film with which I am totally and relentlessly in love. Such a moment occurred last week when Clouzot’s Diabolique was released on Blu-ray.
As much as I dislike French New Wave, in terms of genre films, France has produced some of my absolute favorites. My first experience with this -- or any French film for that matter -- occurred in my freshman year of high school. The teacher of my French class, clearly desiring to take a de facto two-day vacation, decided that we would all sit down and watch an old black-and-white horror film from director Henri-Georges Clouzot. I was instantly awestruck by what unfolded before me, what ultimately became a frequently revisited film around my domicile. This may sound like a self-indulgent anecdote, but it turns out there was a very specific reason for my instant connection with this film that was only brought to my attention after delving into the special features on this Criterion Blu.
More on this revelation in a moment, but first, to the film itself.
Diabolique is the story of a private boy’s school run by a woman and her husband. When I say husband, what I really mean is the rancid excuse for a human being to whom our heroine happens to be wed. This man delights in physically, sexually and psychologically torturing his fragile, weak-hearted wife. Eventually, his regimen of abuse becomes too much for her to bear. She and another teacher at the school, with whom the husband has had an affair, conspire to exorcise themselves of him once and for all. Having accomplished the deed, they believe they are home free. But a series of supernatural events leads the two to suspect that somehow the husband is still tormenting them from beyond the grave.
Few modern horror films are able to match the power and unsettling effectiveness of Diabolique. The film is shot as if it were a gothic horror movie, and yet its setting is one of timeless foreboding. There have been countless films that have explored the frightfulness of private schools, and Diabolique stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best -- The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage leaping immediately to mind. Diabolique similarly investigates the discord between these schools as havens, places of safety, as well as arenas for supernatural dangers. Diabolique’s cinematography (featuring masterful use of shadow and light) and its subtlety (always suggesting but rarely revealing) provide a more gothic tone and allow for a truly unique and terrifying experience.
Though not as loaded to the gills with special features as some of the other Criterion Blu-ray releases, Diabolique harbors one particular interview that was not only fascinating, but shed new light on my initial appreciation of the film as well as strengthened my currently thriving adoration. The interview is with a British film critic and novelist named Kim Newman. I was actually very happy to see him turn up here, as he was my favorite part of an extensive documentary about England’s Video Nasties and the corresponding censorship issue. Kim’s knowledge of truly schlocky exploitation fare was rivaled only by his wit and ability to perfectly and eloquently summarize any given film. On this special feature, Kim proves that his knowledge is not limited to cheesy horror, and he waxes poetic about the merits of Diabolique as well as a connection to Alfred Hitchcock, of which I was previously unaware.
I know I tend to make a habit of bringing up Hitch whenever possible, because this is a man who fundamentally altered the course of my film geekdom and ultimately my life. But what I didn’t know is that Hitch, for a brief time, considered Clouzot to be his rival. Hitchcock was never coy about his mantra as the Master of Suspense, and when Clouzot’s 1955 film Wages of Fear, about two men transporting nitroglycerin cross country, was touted as the most suspenseful movie of all time, he was a bit put off. But what really got Hitch’s goat was when Clouzot beat him out for the rights to adapt a story by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, a story that ultimately became Diabolique and was a monster success for Clouzot. In response, Hitch snatched up another novel by those same writers that then became his Vertigo. There is also a rumor that Hitch latched on to the idea of adapting Psycho when he heard about the shower scene, which he hoped would dwarf the seminal bathtub scene at the end of Diabolique.
Even though Diabolique is a film with which I was already quite familiar, Criterion has engendered a completely new appreciation for it within me. Learning of the connections between Hitch and Clouzot, how each inspired the other to push further and further, was like a thunderclap in my brain. It would easily explain why that dorky high school kid, who was just discovering the greatness of Hitchcock, took such a shine to this weird little French horror flick. Thanks, Criterion!