The weird experience of watching movies on planes

Watching a movie on a plane can relieve the boredom of sitting in a chair for hours, but the experience isn’t without its quirks and pitfalls, as Ryan explains…

You’re 35,000 feet up in the air, or something like that, and you’ve nothing to do except stare out of your little window and pray the jet engine doesn’t fall off the left wing. You’ve brought a book and three magazines with you, except there’s no point in reading those because the child in the next row down keeps screaming, and the drone of the engines is simply too distracting.

 Sleep isn’t an option, because of the shrieking child mentioned in paragraph one, and the complaints from your neck every time you put your head back. No, the only sensible option is to address the tiny screen located approximately 18 inches from your face, and attempt to watch a movie. 

You flick through the list of options. Depending on which airline you happen to be flying with, the movies to choose from can range from the latest stuff fresh out of your local multiplex, to straight-to-disc flicks you’ve barely heard of. There might be a few TV shows mixed in there, too – a random episode of The Simpsons from 1994. The episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where everyone seems to be getting divorced, including that chap who used to play the lead in Midnight Caller.

Choosing a movie to watch on a plane isn’t one to be made lightly. Which movie has the right lightness of tone, and the kind of easy to follow plot that you can understand while feeling somewhat sleepy and distracted by air stewards offering cups of tea ?

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Which movie won’t be ruined by the fact that the picture will have been chopped to fit on a tiny 4:3 screen, thus removing any sense of cinematic grandeur? Which movie isn’t so stuffed full of nudity or screams of sexual ecstasy that you’ll have to worry about what other passengers might think of you if they catch you watching it?

This was a problem I encountered a couple of years ago during a particularly lengthy flight. Blissfully unaware of its content, I chose The Disappearance Of Alice Creed as my in-journey entertainment, only to discover that its protagonist, played by Gemma Arterton, spends much of the movie naked, handcuffed and screaming for help.

I was travelling alone, and the person sitting next to me was a lady who I was convinced would look over at what I was watching at any moment and think I was some sort of sociopath. On arriving at yet another scene of nudity and screaming, my nerve left me and I put Iron Man 2 on instead. It wasn’t very good, but it was better, I thought, than sitting in fear of what the person sitting next to me might think.

Then nosiness overcame me, and I looked over at my neighbour’s screen to take a sneaky look at what she was watching. The film she’d chosen turned out to be The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

In the interests of free choice, it seems that most airlines will show just about anything on their little televisions – even if it’s a movie that you probably wouldn’t want to watch on a plane. Last month, I sat and watched The Grey while several thousand feet in the sky, which is a surprising movie to offer since it involves an extremely horrific plane crash.

To be fair to the airline, the words “Nervous flyers shouldn’t watch this movie” – or something like them – appeared on the screen before the feature commenced. I wasn’t a nervous flyer before I saw The Grey on a plane, but I certainly am now. 

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As it turns out, movies like The Grey aren’t bad fodder for plane journeys. The plane crash Liam Neeson suffers through was rendered even more harrowing by the occasional wobble of turbulence that rattled through the Boeing I was trapped in – it added an extra frisson to the film that even 3D can’t provide, a bit like those After Burner arcade machines that tossed you around in a pneumatic chair. 

When Neeson and his fellow survivors wake up in a snowy wilderness, with little more than a wet stick and duty free catalogue for protection from a hungry pack of wolves, the drone of the engines melded with the howling wind in the film’s soundtrack, providing the ultimate sense of desolation and gloom. It wasn’t the most cheery way to kill two hours on a plane, but it sure was atmospheric.

Watching movies on planes, then, is unique and weird. It’s almost the only place where what you watch can have an impact on other passengers. You can immediately work out which of your fellow travellers has chosen The Muppets or 21 Jump Street from the menu, because you can hear their muffled titters coming from a few seats in front.

And you can definitely tell who’s decided to watch The Grey, because their eyes are filled with tears and bitter determination, and they’re walking down the aisle with a fistful of tiny, broken bottles of booze taped to their knuckles.

Our advice? Stick to comedies. They’re less likely to disturb you than a drama like The Grey, and they won’t leave you gripped with paranoia like a movie full of adult content. Comedies are good for morale, and the tittering and chattering of other passengers will be blocked out by your own drowsy laughter.

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