Infrequent flyer Joseph Nunweek gruellingly attempts to rank them all.
“Toneless.” “Trivialising safety” “A juvenile mish-mash.” The real surprise last week when The Hon. Shane Jones MP criticised the latest Air New Zealand safety video wasn’t that the Minister for Verbiage would stick his neck out and create a political football – it was that he apparently hasn’t caught a flight with the national carrier at any time in the past 10 years.
To help Jones and his colleagues understand exactly what they’re dealing with, I watched as many of these videos as I could on terra firma. This is intended to be part briefing paper, part power ranking. My services are for free, despite the obvious psychological costs.
16. The Cheap Hobbit One
I haven’t flown often enough to have seen this one, let alone watched a series of the Air NZ videos in succession. Taken together, the pre-flight videos are probably best understood as an anthology series, a Black Mirror where the provocative questions are things like “What if Israel Dagg rapped?” or “Could Adrian Grenier ever process oxygen through a mask, just like us.?”.
Mostly, they’re usually an extension of the three accepted New Zealand cultural exports (All Blacks; Tolkien-via-Jackson; nature… green beach?). Two of these are so massive that they’ve fundamentally skewed the direction of political decision making. The third not so much. There will be a Safety At Fonterra HQ video by 2024.
LOTR and The Hobbit are for nerds, pop culture patriots,or patriotic pop culture nerds and I do not like encountering references or paraphernalia to these franchises in the wild. ‘An Unexpected Briefing’, with its hideous Celtic pipes, would’ve seen me ejected from the plane prior to takeoff.
Ultimately, its plane bound setting means it’s a reasonably literal plane instruction video plus dress-ups and references. Interesting tidbits include the last manifestation of Air NZ’s early Horny Tendency (of which more below – here it’s a weird oral sex reference about blowing to inflate) and the disgusting sight of a grown man wearing Converses with a big wizard smock. Peter Jackson cameos. Inconsolably and weirdly, he is revealed to be the only living New Zealander who can’t do a passable Gollum impression.
15. The Revolting Sex Puppet One
“Rico” is the horrible and offensive Jar-Jar Binks of the Air NZ cinematic universe. Birthed in Jim Henson’s studios, Rico was a rodent-like puppet that would bleat in a loathsome imitation-South American accent about loving NZ’s “hot beetches”, “beating off the native bush track” and other innuendoes before an audience of awkwardly smiling women extras. I’d assumed that while Rico was used to back premium economy flights, they figured out he wouldn’t fly on the small screen before takeoff – though there’s plenty of implied sex humour in their early videos, Rico is basically Strassman if it was only about rooting and is about as much of an ultimate death wish as that would suggest.
14. The Randy All Black One
A pressing question that’s never really been addressed: who is the audience for these videos? I assume New Zealanders hate them? If you take a domestic flight regularly if at all, it’s already short and bumptious and the clips seem like they’re half the journey.
If it’s international viewers, then god knows what they made of this one. Richie McCaw and Graham Henry are probably the most famous NZ rugby player and coach this century, but bellow their names in a sports conversation overseas (as certain Kiwis will) and you’ll get blank looks. The idea of making a person from the US or Germany sit through this is completely cruel or unusual.
No, where this one makes its mark is being in deeply and inappropriately horny. Women attendants swoon and faint in the presence of big Rich, an elderly woman does a streak down the aisle, and there’s a weird and bad bit where an All Black is frightened of giving a male steward a chaste peck on the cheek (ie: the worst thing that one could be seen to do in 2010). This one has dated very badly, a sensation not unlike encountering the song “Young Folks” in the year of our Lord 2015. I mean…
13. The Surfing One
The Civil Aviation Authority absolutely had a go at this one for obscuring the core safety message, which again, really suggests no one from the watchdog had actually got on a plane since these videos began. Charitably, most of the compulsory instructions in this video are delivered by non-actors and this makes it a lot less distracting and neutral than when it’s a celeb mugging it up. The actual surfing itself is kind of glacial and pretty — very safety-oriented in a way worthwhile videos of board sports aren’t. But that’s really the problem – this video is crushingly and despairingly boring. Who knew that Peter Bjorn and John Song was this long?
12. The Expensive Hobbit One
You all know this one. Too expensive and glossy to tune out, pleasingly free of sex jokes and All Blacks. Peter Jackson get off my plane.
11. The Bikini One
There’s a couple of redemptive readings of kooky in-flight safety videos, but one would be that the majority of women cabin crew are no longer having to enact the survival mime of reaching for oxygen masks and pointing to exit rows before the gaze of dozens of strangers. Instead, the myriad fantasies that seem to persist in economy air travel (where, remember, an adult can barely rotate their form in the toilet let alone join the Mile High Club) get transposed onto Sports Illustrated swimsuit models in this 2014 edition.
Like the deep-cut All Black ones, the intended audience is impossible to parse. We lack the English/Ryanair culture of ferrying Norg-loving lads over to deflationary capitals for buck night hedonism, so what did the decent chunk of passengers make of these? And, more importantly, what did Shane Jones think?
10. The B-List Celebs One
There’s a fourth category of Air NZ video, sometimes overlapping with nature and the All Blacks, where they get in American celebrities of a certain tier, like nonagenarian Golden Girl Betty White or kitsch fitness star Richard Simmons. In every instance Air NZ uses these celebrities, it’s a kind of weird flex — an echo of the way the country’s 1980s telethons used to fly in people like Leeza Gibbons and Blair Underwood for gravitas (no, I had to Google them too). At least New Zealanders recognise the All Blacks.
Of these two, the Betty White one has the edge because the main star is more charming than infuriating. They both have an aggressive ‘forced fun’ streak. The goings-on are virtually relentless, like someone standing over you and demanding to know if you’re enjoying yourself or laughing yet. The Betty White one is also the last stand of the Horny Style In Air NZ Cinema, going full throttle with older people chasing each other through corridors like something out of Benny Hill. After this, for better or worse, it’s all-ages entertainment.
9. The Drawings One
Ed O’Neill (Modern Family) and Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures) in a drawing! I don’t know what the gestation of this one was, but a cynical version of me thinks it was just cheaper than actually getting the actors? You can kind of tell that this idea inspired panic at some point. I personally think watching a good illustrator do their (sped-up) thing is always fun, although it’s maybe a little bit too static to hold a restless audience’s attention. All the same, the pen takes us to place the camera wouldn’t be able to, showing us dread visions like an All Black on a passenger plane.
8. The Sick Old Man One
It was kind of inevitable that something like this would manifest at some point (the All Blacks… are the Men In Black!) but this one is almost adorably off the boil, four years removed from the last MiB movie. Another lavish peak-season one for the boys, this is abstracting the All Blacks from their code the same way it abstracts the potential risk of a plane accident from the plane itself. Did anyone not from New Zealand realise that these were sportspeople?
This one is actually super haunting for its use of Rip Torn (and absolutely no one else) from the movies. Reprising Chief Zed, Torn looks and sounds really unwell and often seems like he’s reading his few lines from cue cards, and it gives the whole thing a weird vibe of exploitation.
7. The Ice Cold One
My obvious bias here is that I’ve been fascinated by Antarctica since I was a kid in school and would love to (respectfully) visit it one day. In that sense, this should be the best Air NZ video to me, a person who will murmur “just fuck me up” when so much as placed in front of a static five-minute shot of a tundra.
On the other hand: Air NZ was once was a valid political issue for serious and Antarctic reasons. The videos over the past five years have become a final and perfect disassociation of flying-as-consumed-service from flying-as-unnatural-state-of-suspension-in-several-tonnes-of-airborne metal, a fancy that omits the stark reality that fatal accidents lie in Air NZ’s past and, statistically (albeit one in 11 million), in its future.
The Erebus disaster basically put air tourism to Antarctica to bed, and it’s astonishing that no one appeared to give this a thought at head office while the accident remained in living memory. Catch me on another day and the sinister incongruity might make me put it higher, but this one also has Keane playing over the whole.
6. The Actual Famous People One
Air NZ recruits Katie Holmes and Cuba Gooding Jr, its two biggest stars yet, and immediately hits the limits of what you can actually accomplish with famous and non-comedic celebrities. You can’t have Katie chuffing back a fat dart only for a host to point out a No Smoking sign, and Cuba won’t demean himself by fumbling a rugby ball to stow under the seat. Instead, they smile beatifically from CGI skies above and clearly haven’t deigned to set foot in the country.
Weird bits in a pretty restrained and tasteful Air NZ ad: viewers are directed to follow the lighted safety path in case of emergency to… uh, the heavenly skies. And at the end, Cuba reveals his mastery of the one and only teenage NZ hobby – stealing a street sign with your name on it.
5. The Bear Grylls One
The start of the imperial phase when Air NZ started attracting significant contemporary stars. This is the apex of their mise-en-scene of a bunch of seats in the wilderness (basically, they’re Samuel Beckett plays if Beckett loved rugby and retrieving life jackets). It’s fine, there’s a sanitised version of the completely demented Ace Ventura 2 scene with the rhino where a guy emerges out the back of the moa, which frankly puts it up there for me.
4. The Rhys Darby One
Here’s the pitch: take two actors previously known for doing light comedy and put them into a fictional scenario where they journey through different genre exercises – all in the service of an external project to create a mood of well-being and ease in paying customers. That’s right, the Rhys Darby and Anna Faris one is Netflix’s Maniac done in five minutes, generating the same mix of recognition and deep melancholy.
This is the point where everyone has abandoned all pretense that these videos aren’t a viral exercise rather than a procedural induction. The attendants who usually appear in the videos are now presented as a surreal, offbeat intrusion and the idea of being forced to even complete the exercise of telling people how to escape a plane becomes a meta joke. This is a world where Air NZ is the country’s foremost producer of big-budget narrative fiction first and airline second.
3. The Nude One
Virtually ancient and a real jolt to watch. It’s the first (I think) and straightest bat Air NZ has ever played. This is the first time I’ve come away being able to visualise the space around me in the plane (and know what to do) without a whole bunch of stuff going on. The “let’s put our crew in body paint” is a real pile-of-coke-on-the-table idea on the part of the creatives, but there’s nothing weird and objectifying that goes on here. It’s completely wild to imagine offence having been taken to this. From the perspective of basic utility, this is the best of the videos.
2. The Northland Summer One
So low-stakes it doesn’t feature anywhere on the other, worse listicles. The biggest celebs are Rachel Hunter and Zoe Bell and they’re playing down. Basically, passenger/tourist Jayden Daniels has a ball in one of the most underrated parts of the country. This is the platonic ideal — nice scenery. But I didn’t learn a single thing about saving myself or anyone else in a plane crash, and a so-so song mixed so far down that I’m not migraining out after a few minutes. It has Mike Hosking and Kate Hawkesby in it though so it can’t be first.
1. The Best One
I’m a naturally anxious person, and most of it seems to stem from what I have the potential to get wrong myself – that’s to say, anything that lies within my power to overlook, destroy or make awkward. When I realised that flying by plane was a sort of absolution, and that if anything went wrong it would be beyond my control as a passenger, it was suddenly liberating.
When I’m on an Air NZ flight, I wonder how much of that stems from the vids. There was a time (and bear in mind, there are kids leaving high school now who wouldn’t know it) when the airline’s safety instructions were delivered as a terse but friendly live performance, a rite that lacked special guests but always somehow upped the stakes. The physicality of the hosts as calm marionettes acting out fluid and rehearsed manoeuvres always felt (and still feels, if you’re on a lesser carrier) like an incantation against chaos. Real bodies don’t move like this in freefall. They don’t keep their poise when everyone’s losing their shit. They get mangled, vapourised, torn apart for recovery on some hill. There’s always a frisson of acting out the unthinkable as a meditative kabuki.
Instead, the Air NZ videos are infantilizing. They make you feel like a big baby. But isn’t that what you’re going to do for the next few hours anyway – sleep a little, feign attention to a podcast, eat a compartmentalised TV dinner while watching Riverdale, fart unheard under a constant high-ambient turbine skree?
So the latest is the best one by elimination. There’s no Tolkien stuff, no rugby stuff. They’re not leaning on international star power, something that always indicates more cultural cringe than using your local talent. There’s very little pastoral rural idyll going on — this is a reflection of a country where the overwhelming majority of the population live in central and regional cities. Where previous videos have coasted on endless instrumental loops of the Exponents, this one interpolates Sisters Underground with Run-DMC. It’s chosen to spend its large budget on a cast and crew of young and emerging artists and performers who probably saw one of their best pay-days of the year.
So yeah, it’s extremely goofy, as if 30 years of edutainment rap had avoided that pitfall. But going all in to call “Safety, Kiwi Style” a new low after suffering years of these? That’s naïve at best and sort of slyly suss at worst. I’m with James Nokise over at RNZ: the video is fine. If we’re at the beginning of a renewed Crown intervention in the national carrier – and if Shane Jones has his way, that will probably start with the end of videos like these – they went out on their version of a high.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.