The Basic Luxury of Watching Movies on Planes
For most of us, air travel means enduring a million little indignities: strictly enforced cabin hierarchies, ridiculously small pretzel snack packs, coffin-sized toilets, battles from vicious elbows to shared armrests, not to mention all the cancellations and delays.
When I’m trapped in a metal tube, doing my best to keep my limbs from inconveniencing anyone else around me, I find myself clinging to whatever little pleasure I can find, even if it’s just a muddy cup of coffee. Here, the illusion of luxury might as well be the real luxury. Airplanes are a place where the margins are thin, where an ounce of comfort for yourself can cost someone else. There is only one real refuge left: to watch free movies.
To me, airtime is like stolen time. Because Wi-Fi costs more, I can justify staying offline and inaccessible, by indulging in free entertainment. And so, inside a haze of anti-anxiety medication, mild dehydration, back pain and stomach bloating, I plan my escape. If the plane is equipped with touch screens with movies on demand, I browse the library as if I were in a fancy chocolate factory. So many choices! Something for every palate! Mmm, but what am I in the vibe for?
I have a strangely good memory of all the movies I’ve watched on airplanes, and my choices invariably fall into a few categories. The first is Blockbusters which I will never see in theaters, i.e. any superhero movie. I’m too behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point to even pretend I’m going to catch up, and yet I’ve seen both guardians of the galaxy movies more Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in airplanes. The second is Indie Films I’ve Heard Good Things About, smaller, well-reviewed films, such as Dope, Beyond the Lights, and Clouds of Sils Maria, that I can feel good and grown to have watched, and for which I might not have taken the time otherwise. The third is Old Comfort Movies, the ones I rarely actively seek out but make me laugh and cry and happy to be alive. (Moana. End of list.)
As someone who flies fairly regularly from the east coast to Guam – that’s a whole day wasted traveling and almost another day wasted due to jet lag – I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of long-haul flights in terms of number of movies I can watch. An 8:30 flight from Houston to Honolulu? That’s a few movies plus a few naps. (Miniseries binges can work just as well. Earlier this year, I watched every HBO show The White Lotus on a 14-hour flight from Newark to Narita.)
Others also touted the small pleasures of watching movies during flights. In early 2021, Joshua Rivera wrote for Polygon that airplane movies were the only thing he missed being able to fly during the pandemic. “When I was flying, I was taking weird, inscrutable risks on movies that I wouldn’t normally watch at home,” Rivera said, confirming my belief that airplanes are the ultimate liminal space — a place that seems a little wrong. , where our actions matter less, where we somehow feel freer.
Of course, like any other part of the air travel experience, watching a movie can have its downsides. Ryan Lambie wrote for Geek’s Lair of the many questions he asks himself when selecting a movie on an airplane: “What movie won’t be spoiled by the fact that the image has been cropped to fit on a small 4:3 screen, thus removing any sense of cinematic grandeur? What movie isn’t so full of nudity or screams of sexual ecstasy that you have to worry about what other passengers might think of you if they catch you watching it?” my apologies to Christopher Nolan, I once made the mistake of trying to review Principle on a plane. The first time I saw it was at the theater, and I had a hard time understanding the plot (Reverse Entropy! Reverse Time!); I wanted to try another time. But the flight was exceptionally loud and the audio quality particularly poor, so my understanding of the story remained tenuous. I settled for the thrill of watching Nolan’s ballet action sequences play out in reverse.
As our ground entertainment choices grow, there’s something wonderful about making do with the smaller viewing menu that most airlines offer. Of course, more passengers now have the option of purchasing a Wi-Fi pass and streaming Netflix or Prime Video from their personal devices. And many operators are investing money in licensing and managing their own huge libraries. But I like not spending an hour wondering what to watch, and up in the air, where the weather doesn’t seem real anyway, low-stakes choices like these are easier to make.
Some of the fondness I feel for airplane movies surely goes back to when I was a kid and the whole airplane was watching the same movie, simultaneously on a big screen in the middle and on small screens on the side. I remember watching Godzilla and Shrek that way and the feeling that the stuffy cabin had suddenly transformed into a glamorous movie theater in the sky, as if I shared a deep connection with all those anonymous bodies sitting with me in the dark. Something of that little joy surfaces in me every time I squint at a small screen, munching on my terrible little pretzels, cocooned by the narrow armrests, the roar of the plane’s engines fading to a hum – nothing in my mind except what the next scene will bring.