Flying from Los Angeles to Boston earlier this month, on my way to spend a week with my family, I found myself facing an odd conundrum: What’s the perfect plane movie?
I’ll start at the beginning with how I ended up asking this question in the first place.
I don’t enjoy traveling, but I also don’t hate long flights. They offer a respite – sometimes pleasant, sometimes less than ideal – from connectivity. I guess maybe those people that pay for in-flight WiFi can’t relate to this, but I’m too cheap. Instead, I use flights as an opportunity to read a book uninterrupted, catch up on movies I missed in the theater, or, as is often the case, sleep.
For this particular flight, I was surprised to find myself aboard a very new plane. You could immediately tell it was new; greeted by the smell of fresh leather and clean plastic, walking on a carpet showing no signs of wear and tear, and the seats actually had cushions not yet reduced to glorified cardboard pads from thousands of hours of immobile butts. I also found myself genuinely impressed by the quality of the screens installed on the backs of the seats.
(Important to mention here that the quality of most in-flight entertainment monitors is tragically low. I recently was on an AirFrance flight with screens so pixelated I found myself missing 480p YouTube videos.)
The sheer quality of this screen left me feeling compelled to use it. I thought, “I’ll never get a screen this good again. It’s now or never.” So there I am, sitting on this flight scrolling through what feels like an endless array of the most random movies ever selected trying desperately to choose something; there are several movies I’ve seen, several I’ve told myself I would watch, and yet I’m totally unable to commit to anything.
First, I almost rewatch Red Sparrow, a film that has continued to grow on me since I saw it in March. Then I consider watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy maneuver their tumultuous romance in Before Midnight. I even consider committing to something mindless — maybe something the Rock would star in.
Since I can’t manage to actually choose anything, instead I start wondering: what’s the perfect movie to watch on a plane?
I’ll readily cop to the fact that this is a silly question. The answer is purely subjective, as the question itself lacks any clear, quantifiable answer. And yet…
If I had to describe the perfect plane movie, I suppose I’d start with something simple like, “not slow” or “exciting.” I’m using this fairly simple characteristic as a starting point because, listen, no one wants to be bored on a plane; I need a movie that distracts me from the fact that I’m squished into a middle seat next to a woman eating the smelliest sandwich ever made, listening to a baby crying three rows behind me, and hearing several loud mechanical engines churning in order to keep this plane in the air — I need a movie that will absorb my attention in order to give me a respite from the less than ideal circumstances I’m in.
But “exciting” is hardly an adequate qualifier for what makes an entertaining movie. It’s far too encompassing, including several movie genres or types of movies that I think make really poor plane watches. For example — I cannot understand the appeal of watching superhero movies or Star Wars or really anything with massive set pieces with lots of CGI.
Not only are these movies shot to be seen on a big screen so you can actually see what’s going on, but they are usually so full of CGI that by the time its been reduced to play on a small in-flight monitor, it looks like shit.
As such, I think smaller movies are better suited to being plane movies. By smaller, I mean those smaller scale dramas and comedies that derive tension and entertainment from sharp dialogue and thoughtfully plotted and paced narrative. A perfect plane movie is one that doesn’t lose much when it’s reduced to such a small screen.
Minutiae may be bogging me down, but I don’t think it’s trivial to discuss how important the size of the screen is when it comes to watching a movie. The screen — be it in a theater, on a TV, tablet, or in-flight monitor — is the very mode in which a movie is delivered to you. It’s naïve to believe that the size of a screen does not, in some way, impact how you receive a movie. As such, I don’t think it’s right — or at the very least ideal — to watch those large scale movies on such a small screen.
I’m still painting broad strokes, but I do think that exciting (“not slow”) movies that work on a smaller, more intimate scale do give us a better sense of what makes a more suitable plane movie. It leaves us open to plenty of horror movies (assuming they aren’t too dark), quality family, crime, or political dramas, and a broad swathe of comedies.
So, with that in mind, I think it comes down to this: the perfect plane movie is one that feels familiar.
Perhaps it’s as simple as rewatching a movie you’ve seen and loved; allowing yourself to settle into the characters and conflict with which you’re already familiar. The familiarity should counteract the very foreign experience of flying through the air at over 500 miles per hour.
Even if it’s not a movie you’ve seen before, I think the familiarity factor is still key. The perfect plane movie should feel good to take in, it should remind you of home and of real people and comforting experiences. Plane movies should make you laugh, make you feel lighter, and elevate you from that crappy coach seat that still cost you more than you could afford.
In a way, the perfect plane movie should function similarly to the plane itself. It’s a transitory power, one that you enter temporarily in order to explore new worlds, to meet new people, to deliver you home, to return you to those you love most. Planes are a mechanical entity created by the ingenuity and creativity of the human mind. Movies are oddly equivalent. Though less mechanical, they are still constructed all the same.
I still haven’t answered the question, mostly because there really is no answer. That said, after all that, here are five movies I recommend as arguably the perfect plane movie:
1. Mistress America (2015) — Noah Baumbach’s film starring Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke is an 85-minute sprint of a movie, delivering fast-paced dialogue, a screwball comedy attitude, and a thoughtful look at what it means to be young and confused.
2. Legally Blonde (2001) — Reese Witherspoon’s iconic performance as Elle Woods and her journey from sorority girl to legal genius remains one of the most buoyant and entertaining 97 minutes you can treat yourself to.
3. The Apartment (1960) — Billy Wilder’s best picture winner starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine delivers laughs and tears in equal measure.
4. American Hustle (2013) — I want it on record that I don’t actually think American Hustle is a good movie, but it might just be the perfect plane movie. It’s off the walls, often nonsensical, full of blisteringly melodramatic performances, and 1970s costume and set design. Jennifer Lawrence sets a microwave on fire! Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams dance to disco music! Christian Bale wears a toupee! It’s ridiculous and perfect.
5. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) — One of the Coen brothers’ less popular (and less well-regarded) movies, The Hudsucker Proxy is a wacky satire about one man’s rise through the ranks at a massive industrial corporation. It’s just the kind of quick-witted and absorbing comedy perfectly suited for a boring flight.