In 1997, a film came out that shook the cinematic world. It made hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide, providing eye candy with its awe-inspiring special effects and tugging at heartstrings with the simple love story at its core.
No, not Titanic. If I wanted to endure a boring, overlong ode to insincere romance with a thoroughly disappointing ending, I’d go have sex instead. I’m talking about the Oscar-nominated 115-minute affront to physics that is Con Air.
Indeed, this year marks the 15th anniversary of Nicolas Cage’s masterpiece. And while the boat movie gets a 3D re-release (a la Star Wars Episode I: Whatever Happened to Jake Lloyd?), Con Air isn’t even available on Netflix Instant. That’s a shame, because flowing beneath director Simon West’s ludicrous action set pieces is a veritable river of philosophical themes, literary allusions and religious imagery.
At least if you overthink it. Caution: Con Air spoilers to follow. If you’ve been waiting 15 years to see the movie and don’t want anything ruined, read no further.
Cameron Poe’s paternal odyssey
Given the surname, you’d think that Cage’s character is a reference to one of the world’s great Gothic fiction writers (or, perhaps, one of the world’s great children’s television characters). His closest literary parallel, however, is Odysseus. Both heroes are torn from their families for years and must endure a difficult journey home. (Whether you’d rather sail past a six-headed sea monster or fight Ving Rhames is another discussion entirely.) While Odysseus wasn’t exactly a shining example of marital faithfulness, both were driven by an intense desire to be at peace with their wives and, in Poe’s case, daughter.
This is where Con Air’s themes of family and fatherhood shine through. We watch Poe struggle to connect with his daughter Casey in an early letter-writing montage. He packs a stuffed pink bunny along for his trip home, perishing the thought that he would return without a present for Casey’s birthday. His dedication to this minor symbol of fatherhood is so strong that he ends up killing a man in part for trying to take it. Similarly, in one of the film’s stranger scenes (and that’s saying something), villain Cyrus “the Virus” Grissom threatens Poe by holding a gun to the (inanimate) bunny’s head.
Poe’s pent-up paternal instincts are so strong that he takes on a surrogate father role to diabetic fellow inmate Baby-O and prison guard Sally Bishop. While they’re far from children, both are put in a state of utter reliance on Poe (Baby-O’s much-needed insulin shots are broken after take-off, and Bishop spends most of the movie handcuffed to a cage). Our hero actually gives up a chance to get off the plane in order to ensure Baby-O and Bishop’s safety. While he mentions that his Army Ranger mentality means he “couldn't leave a fallen man behind,” it’s hard to watch Poe cradle a barely conscious Baby-O in his arms and not think about how much he wants to be a good father to Casey. Like a mother tiger raising piglets, he feels a paternalistic duty to look after those in his care, no matter who they may be.
Cyrus the Virus as anarchist Ahab
There’s a scene right near the end of the film in which Poe and John Malkovich’s Cyrus are fighting. Well, to be more accurate, Poe has just leapt from a moving motorcycle onto the ladder of a speeding fire truck that Cyrus is riding through the middle of Las Vegas. You know, because they had just landed a plane on the Strip. Cyrus attacks Poe with a weapon – a Halligan bar – that bears a striking resemblance to a harpoon. During the skirmish, his quarry stabs him in the leg as Lloyd Dobler (now a U.S. Marshal) looks on.
The similarities between Cyrus and Herman Melville's doomed captain do not end with his choice of weapon and battle-sustained leg injury. He has his own Starbuck in Ving Rhames’ black militant Diamond Dog, who plans to seize power once the convicts have escaped. This escape never succeeds, of course, despite (or perhaps because of) Cyrus’ single-minded devotion to the mission. His plan hits snag after snag – authorities are tipped off about the takeover, the second escape plane is destroyed, military helicopters show up to shoot the plane down – and yet he never gives in. Though clearly a criminal mastermind, his pursuit blinds him and leads to his demise (and that of most of his crew).
The Virus’ white whale, it seems, is freedom. Not just freedom from prison, but freedom from authority – he wants to be somewhere he can live out the rest of his life with no remorse and no legal consequences. On the surface, this is similar to The Dark Knight’s Joker, who revels in consequence-free destruction. The Joker, though, is dedicated to chaos as a necessary counterweight to structure and justice – while he wants to fight Batman forever, Cyrus just wants to escape his foes and live somewhere else. A better analogue might be Judge Holden, the amoral, violent antagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Holden roams the Texas-Mexico border murdering and raping at will. Cyrus may despise rapists, but he would envy Holden’s freedom in McCarthy’s lawless border universe.
Are you there God? It’s me, Garland
While Cyrus looks for philosophical freedom from authority, most of his followers are looking for the freedom to get drunk and have sex. As Diamond Dog describes it, “the rest of our lives will be a vacation in a non-extradition country. I'm talkin' sandy beaches, umbrella drinks…and dirty, naked freaks.” It is, in a sense, Heaven. The point is driven home by Cyrus’ secret code, which uses an image of da Vinci’s "The Last Supper" with all the eyes cut out. Cyrus is trying to lead his disciples to paradise (though, given the image’s eyes and the plan’s result, it seems to be a case of the blind leading the blind).
Unsurprisingly, the Virus and his followers do not reach Heaven. The wicked, of course, are not meant to enter paradise. Cyrus’ plan is a parallel to the Bible’s Tower of Babel story. Men tried to build a tower so tall it could take them up to Heaven, attempting to rise to paradise through will and brute force. God thwarted the attempt, however, scattering them across the planet and confounding them with multiple languages. Likewise, the convicts are struck down for building their own tower (trying to escape their crimes by flying a plane to paradise). In talking to Baby-O, Poe makes it clear which side God is on (hint: Nicolas Cage's side).
So what allows one to enter Heaven? The answer lies with Steve Buscemi’s Garland Greene, a serial killer who is clearly out of his mind. After describing to Poe how he once killed a girl and wore her head as a hat, he ends up sitting alone with a little girl in what must be cinema’s most disturbing tea party. (He got there because they had to land the plane in the abandoned Nevada air strip to switch over to a private jet financed by a Colombian narcotics dealer, remember? It’s all really simple.) Garland ends up singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” with the girl and returns to the plane without harming her in the least. Whether deciding not to kill someone after murdering dozens is deserving of redemption is up for debate, but Garland alone ends up free in Las Vegas, playing craps as the credits roll. Unlike the other convicts, who try and force their way to Heaven, Garland turns inward and undergoes a personal change, choosing a path of righteousness.
How do I live…
Here we have the end of Cameron Poe’s story, in which he finally reunites with his loving wife and daughter. Aw, look how nervous Casey is! Don’t worry, Casey. Nic Cage is home, and he’s got a blood-soaked bunny to give you. I – I don’t even remember what I was going to talk about. Something to do with Camus, or the Vietnam War maybe? If you’re not moved to tears when they embrace, you should never be allowed to watch a movie again. This is too beautiful for words. We’re just going to have to let the art speak for itself.