A wing and a prayer: watching films in the sky

Airplane! (1980)

Nothing makes the time whizz by on a flight like getting stuck into a good movie or three. Since films were regularly made available for viewing on planes in 1961, a general code of practice has developed around how we do so.

Certain films simply don’t work on the smallest of small screens. Obviously, you’re not going to be too happy if you find United 93World Trade Center or Snakes on a Motherfuckin’ Plane amongst your selection, but I’m really referring to those films in which cinematography is of any importance whatsoever; the boxy constraints of a 6-in by 8-in screen are just not suited to the panoramic visions of a Kubrick, Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson-type figure. Likewise, any film which makes you think too hard is a no-go; how can one rightly be expected to follow the machinations of Keyser Soze or track Leonard Shelby’s short-term memory if we’re constantly being interrupted by the deafening PA or the rather large lady sitting next to us who has to clamber over us to use the loo every 15 minutes?

There is a pretty standard formula for “the perfect film to watch on a plane”. It needs to be straightforward and generally palatable; something that’s not going to exercise your brain to any great degree. Rom-coms and generic Hollywood comedy fodder are absolutely right for this occasion. Take, for example, Life As We Know It, in which a hunky sportscaster (played by Josh Duhamel) learns to look after a cute baby under the watchful auspices of the benign Katherine Heigl. The film was so marvellously formulaic that I was able to discern the entire plot by looking up from my copy of Viz magazine to check my girlfriend’s screen once every fifteen minutes. When it finished, I felt like I’d watched it too, and we were able to briefly discuss its (few) merits afterwards.

As well as such brainless fare, other films that tend to work well on planes are ones that you’ve seen many times before, meaning you don’t need to keep up with any unexpected plot developments, or concentrate too hard. Even when taking this route, however, it’s not always plane sailing (*puns like this are allowed to slip through because I am my own editor). On one occasion, while taking advantage of Continental Airlines classics range to watch Taxi Driver, I was at the mercy of some malfunctioning equipment which pumped the audio track from misery-porn classic Precious into my right ear. While there was a strange, yet undeniably fitting thematic synergy between the two (to wit: troubled people in New York in the past), the simmering intensity of Robert de Niro’s performance was fatally undercut by Mo’Nique’s incessant screaming.

A stock photograph of an aeroplane, yesterday

Then there’s the unavoidable issue of peripheral vision distraction. All the screens are in such close proximity that it’s often impossible not to have your head turned by your neighbour’s choice. Recently, on my screen, I was trying to enjoy Christoph Waltz’ Oscar-winning performance as a cocksure, cold-hearted war criminal in Inglourious Basterds, but was summarily unable to ignore, a couple of feet to my right, the same actor being inexplicably beaten up by an elephant whilst a bloodied R-Patz looked on blankly in Water for Elephants. On a recent flight to New York I could see the redoubtable Luis Guzman playing seemingly exactly the same light-hearted Hispanic comic foil in a two separate screens to my right and left  (He’s Just Not That Into You and Arthur, in case you were wondering).

Some films on the plane, understandably, are at the mercy of the editors. You don’t want to be the guy watching a steamy sex scene from, say, Body of Evidence, whilst sat next to a small child. But at the same time some consistency would be nice. It’s fine to watch the massacre at the end of Taxi Driver uncut, but I can’t watch Liam Neeson smash up some generic Eastern European hoods in Taken? (Note to Continental Airlines: you’ve got another thing coming if you think I’m going to watch the PG-13 version of Taken). Neither do I understand the need to censor bad language. Nobody else can hear it, so why must we get the bowdlerized version? “DO YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS LARRY? DO YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FIND A STRANGER IN THE ALPS!!?”

Movie viewing on a plane also provides an intriguing visual spectacle when, on your way back from the lavatory, you confront a sea of tiny screens each facing a viewer in their own temporary private world. At a glance, you can tell which films are popular with the customers. Tropic Thunder, despite featuring, in Jack Black, the worst performance from an A-list actor in a mainstream Hollywood film in living memory, seemed to be an overwhelming favourite. When you see the sheer amount of people watching Eat Pray Love you almost feel compelled to assume control of the PA and ask them what they think they’re doing before you realise that they are simply conforming to rule one of watching films on a plane: the more brainless, the better.

Alas, films are not always the answer. Some hardy souls seem to watch the travel map for the entire duration of the flight (“ONLY 5 hr 43 m UNTIL DESTINATION!”), and sometimes one may simply be too tired to concentrate on even the most unchallenging fare. On one overnight flight, I was unable to follow the plot of an episode of Everybody Hates Chris, so instead turned to the music selection. This proved to be a mistake as I was rudely awoken on the hour, every hour, by Bowie and his pal Mick Jagger screaming the names of countries (‘SOUF AMERRYYKAA!”) in their horrible cover of ‘Dancing in the Street’ Alas, I hadn’t banked on the player’s auto-repeat function, and I was too fundamentally tired to do anything about it.

Sometimes, you just need to accept defeat and try to get some sleep.

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2 thoughts on “A wing and a prayer: watching films in the sky

  1. Tyler

    Ha, this is great. Thanks for saying what we’re all thinking. I actually ended up seated next to an 8-year old boy and his mother on a flight once. I was trying to watch a movie (Snatch.) but the kid kept poking his nose in and trying to watch it as well. Fuck, that was an annoying flight. The mother didn’t even seem to care. Typical. I didn’t finish the movie.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Of Pugs and Planes | ExBerlinerin

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