What Makes a Great Plane Movie?

"Snakes on a Plane" did NOT make this list

July 22, 2019 6:45 am
(Credit: Warner Brothers)
(Credit: Warner Brothers)

In theory, all movies are good plane movies. Planes are cramped, smelly, difficult to sleep on and boring. Any opportunity to distract from that reality is a welcome one.

At least, that was my credo for years, until I watched The Stanford Prison Experiment on a flight back from Copenhagen a few years back. It’s a docudrama about the eponymous social psychology study from the 1970s, and halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, it broke my brain.

It was far too unsettling a watch for my dehydrated, internal clock-confused self, and taught me a valuable lesson: some movies are plane movies, others are not.

Travel days are inherently soul-crushing. Fine. But it’s in your power to cut away at your many hours in the air with a form of entertainment that won’t add to that stress. And if you really play your cards right, you might even find yourself having fun.

To that end, here is the official criteria for a perfect plane movie:

  • It’s not a disaster movie: This eliminates Titanic, Poseidon, The Day After Tomorrow and most of the work of Mark Wahlberg. Especially eliminated here? Disaster movies involving planes. You simply don’t need your head to go there. I don’t care if it’s got a happy ending (Sully), a ton of jokes (Airplane), one of the best lines in cinematic history (Air Force One: “Get off my plane!”) or a ton of snakes (Snakes on a Plane). Stay away.
  • It’s conducive to the environment: We’re working with a 12-inch screen, so you probably don’t want to save your big first watch of Into the Wild for a flight. Anything that’s known for its cinematography might not pair well with your fellow passenger tilting his seat 60 degrees back toward your lap. Don’t forget you’ll be working with tinny airline earbuds, either. Study the previous 25 Academy winners for Best Original Score, then make sure not to watch any of them.
  • It’s the ideal runtime: Looking for the Goldilocks theology here. Too short, you’re not putting much of a dent in your flight. Too long, it starts to feel like homework.
  • It’s not going to horrify the rando next to you: Keeping bedroom and bloodbath scenes (or bedroom bloodbath scenes, what’s good, Gone Girl) to a minimum is a good look. Rubberneckers abound on flights, so always assume people are looking on/intensely judging your selection. Oh, and there might be a little kid next to you.
  • It’s not an essential watch: You were never actually going to theaters to see this movie. (Though maybe you kicked around the thought.) You’re not beholden to any sort of group watch pact with your family, friends or roommates. And you don’t imagine you’ll need to sort through the plot with companions after your watch.

That’s pretty much it! Plus, no prison experiments. Never. Below, find 10 of the best movies you can watch on a plane, as curated by our editors.

The Internship (2013)

The studios were probably thinking Wedding Crashers 2 when they reunited Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson and sent them to The Googleplex for a summer. That’s not exactly how it worked out. The Internship made $200m less, and wields little of Crashers’ cultural mystique. (People will cancel their evening plans to group watch that movie, I’ve seen it happen.) That said, The Internship dominates as a plane movie. Vaugh and Wilson play laid-off salesmen competing for jobs at Google with tiger-mothered Harvard grads. There’s a Quidditch match, a “night out” montage that should’ve been left in the 2000s, and literally zero leash on Vaughn or Wilson’s dialogue. But that’s why this movie works 30,000 feet up; the stakes are just so low. It isn’t funny enough that you have to watch it with anyone, there aren’t any sex scenes that’ll require you to dim the screen’s brightness, and the pacing is more elliptical than treadmill. I don’t learn anything new about the film or myself each time I watch The Internship, and I don’t really care. — Tanner Garrity, Associate Editor

Heat (1995)

With a cast highlighted by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Val Kilmer, this LA-based bank heist movie should be a classic. Thing is, due to a myriad of issues, Heat falls short of that pantheon and certainly isn’t the type of film you’d go out of your way to watch at home or show to a friend. That said, based on the cast alone, Heat is worth a solo watch and is perfect for devoting the 75 percent of your attention span that a plane movie usually warrants. And, with a run time of almost three hours, this Michael Mann is an especially good companion for international or cross-country flights. — Evan Bleier, Senior Editor

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)

I’m a terrible flyer. A gripping-the-armrest, death-fearing, near-vomiting mess every time I fly. I’m a firm believer that if God wanted us to be in the sky, she would’ve given us wings. So I need to watch something that’s going to take my mind off of all this. Something that’s complex enough to distract me from my fear, but not so complicated that after I recover from a 10-second bout of stomach-churning turbulence, I’m completely lost. He’s Just Not That Into You checks all those boxes for me. There are no fewer than nine intertwined storylines happening all at once — I’m a sucker for overlapping plots — and it’s chock full o’ good actors like Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, Justin Long and Bradley Cooper, not to mention a hilarious Natasha Leggero cameo. It’s not solely a chick-flick thanks to a home-wrecking, never fully-clothed Scarlett Johansson and a cringe-y but funny Ginnifer Goodwin. Plus, it’s the type of movie you can throw on at basically any point and not worry about being confused and at just a hair over two hours long, it’s the easiest way to kill (eek) a nice third of a cross-country flight. — Ariel Scotti, Senior Editor

The Sound of Music (1965)

Besides newer releases and classic action fare, there is another genre you’ll find on every airplane: family-friendly classics. Yes, The Sound of Music is a classic film, but I’m including it because you probably haven’t watched it since you were a youngster, and that’s a problem. What you remember as a cheeseball musical is actually an engrossing quasi-historical epic (Based on the real Maria’s memoir! 174 minutes!) that’s brilliantly acted (Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer!) with a first-rate, $1-earbuds-friendly score (Rodgers and Hammerstein!). And when you shed a tear as the Austrian crowd begins to sing “Edelweiss” along with Captain von Trapp and the family, don’t worry, it’s normal. — Alex Lauer, Senior Editor

Woman in Gold (2015)

I’ve spent the last few years trying to figure out why I watched Woman in Gold 2 1/2 times on a plane ride from JFK to L.A. a few years ago, and I’ve come up with it: the movie has everything I want but nothing I need. Based on a true story about an older Jewish lady living in Los Angeles trying to get back a Gustav Klimt that the Nazis took from her family, there isn’t a ton of emotional investment involved for a movie connected to such a weighty topic. You know there’s going to be some sort of happy ending, Ryan Reynolds is trying to play straight and it’s got Helen Mirren. No violence, no mess, no nudity that the 4-year-old sitting next to me might accidentally see. And, once again, it has Helen Mirren. Pretty much anything with her is going to be at least good enough for a plane. In this case, she’s in an otherwise forgettable film that is totally captivating when you’re tens of thousands of feet above the ground. — Jason Diamond, Features Editor

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

I tend to watch two things on planes: human-subject documentaries (because unless we’re talking Herzog or Marker, not a whole tends to be lost on the small screen) and movies that I wouldn’t seek out on my own time, which leads me to a lot of rom-coms. Enter the hugely hyped Crazy Rich Asians, a genre film that smashed box-office records while earning plaudits for its representation of Asian characters, which has traditionally been a big problem in Hollywood. Here’s the thing: in most ways, Crazy Rich Asians is exactly what you think it is — a splashy big-budget chick flick that leaves no genre cliché unturned, from the evil mother-in-law to the dopy-but-handsome male lead to the classic airport ambush scene. But the film does all this with a heady sense of self-awareness, declaring to its audience that the lazy stereotypes and background roles to which Asian characters have so long been relegated are bullshit. And how do you do that? By casting a massive ensemble of talented Asian performers in the kind of leading roles that have historically been preserved for white actors: as glamorous, charming, powerful people to be ogled and idolized. And in that, it is a very good and subversive genre film, and fully deserving of two hours of your next flight time. — Walker Loetscher, Editor-in-Chief

Inception (2010)

If you haven’t seen this Christopher Nolan mindbender yet, you must watch it on a big screen (which, nine years after release, probably means a 4K Blu-ray on your home flatscreen). But the second, third, fourth time? Inception is a perfect plane movie because it seems required on every in-flight entertainment system, it’s bold and wild without being visually abhorrent for your seatmates — no sex, there is violence but no bloodshed — and the labyrinth, dream-within-a-dream structure actually makes sense on repeated viewings. Also, at 2.5 hours, it’ll single-handledly pass the time on domestic flights that aren’t coast-to-coast. — Kirk Miller, Managing Editor

Easy A (2010)

From Ferris Bueller to Mean Girls, every decade or so a teen movie comes along that stands out among the crowded canon of stereotypical high school flicks. The 2010s got theirs early with Easy A, a surprisingly sophisticated comedy starring Emma Stone as a witty, irreverent teen who figures out how to manipulate the high school rumor mill to her advantage after she accidentally spreads a lie about losing her virginity. Like any good teen flick, the movie speaks to the realities (however exaggerated) of the high school experience, but with a healthy layer of retrospective irony that keeps it relatable well after your teen angst matures into plain old adult neurosis. Peppered with allusions to classic literature and the movie’s own John Hughes-era predecessors, Easy A combines sharp comedy with a light-hearted tone and clever premise for an entertaining but low-stakes plane watch. — Kayla Kibbe, Editorial Assistant

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

I once saw a tweet by a music critic (whose exact identity I can no longer recall) describing Bohemian Rhapsody as the kind of movie you need not spend $15 on at a theater, but also the kind of movie you would never turn off if you happened you come across it on television — which I figured would make it a pretty good choice on a recent overseas flight. I don’t give much of a shit about Queen beyond recognizing their integral role in Wayne’s World, but boy do I love a stupid, formulaic rock biopic. La Bamba? Yes. Walk the Line? Every day if I could. The Doors? Lol, no. I have some dignity. But Bohemian Rhapsody is a valid entry in the genre, featuring a whole lot of glamorous drug and alcohol use followed by a whole lot of decidedly unglamorous drug and alcohol use, plus some great intra-band fighting and some very weird and kind of offensive glossing over of the fact that Freddie Mercury was gay. Also there were some large artificial teeth. Good on Rami Malek for nailing Freddie’s mannerisms, though, and to everyone involved in the shot-by-shot recreation of the band’s Live Aid performance. — Mike Conklin, Executive Editor

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

I honestly don’t remember anything about this movie other than the fact that Zooey Deschanel is in it and I cried. What more do you need, really? — Loetscher

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