Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Up in the air

If Gary Larson were still drawing cartoons, he could probably do a good one about a film buff in hell who has to spend eternity watching movies on an airplane.

For a person who really cares about movies and has any kind of tendency toward a compulsive personality, watching a movie on an airplane is one of the worst experiences he or she can have. It’s the sort of environment that violates virtually rule that I have ever come up with for having a pleasurable film viewing experience.

Thanks to my own personal transatlantic courtship and marriage, I have spent more time than I ever expected to on long-haul flights between America’s west coast and the British Isles. And, by this time, I know the routine by heart. At various times for various reasons I have sat in four, count ‘em, four different classes in the airline cabin: first (a.k.a. decadent pampering that you would never pay for with your own money), business (a.k.a. almost as good as first but you still wouldn’t pay for it yourself), coach (a.k.a. all the luxury and comfort of cattle in a boxcar or sardines in a tin), and coach plus (a.k.a. just enough better than coach to make you really miss business class). Speaking from experience, I can attest that the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry gets promoted to first class and instantly becomes a snob to his erstwhile friends back in coach is not exaggerated.

But it doesn’t matter which class you land in; there is only marginal difference between them as far as the quality of film viewing experience. Somehow, it always starts off promising. The flight attendant brings you a lovely little (emphasis on little) drink with a plastic bag of artificially flavored Styrofoam. You peruse the in-flight magazine (a.k.a. one of numerous marketing opportunities afforded the airline by the fact that you are a captive audience for nine or ten hours) and notice that a recent movie that you’ve been meaning to see is being shown on the flight. (This pleasant surprise is often short-lived, however, since the published movie schedules are notoriously complicated and the movie you want to see is usually only being shown on the return flight—up until the day before you yourself actually return.) So you pop on the headphones and settle back to watch the film—after fumbling for ten minutes trying to get the headphones to work and finally asking for another pair. Just as the movie starts and you start to get into it, you become aware that someone is trying to get your attention. It is the flight attendant with the dinner cart wanting to know if you prefer beef or chicken. By the time you sort it out and get your dinner on your tray, you find that you have missed a key scene in the film.

This sort of thing goes on for the length of the movie. Sometimes, usually during an emotionally charged scene where pacing is everything, the screen suddenly freezes and a blaring voice comes through your headphones saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the pilot. Thought you might want to know that there is a lovely view of Lake Michigan on the right of the aircraft.” (You, of course, are on the left side of the plane or, more likely, in the middle.) This sort of thing goes on until the end of the film, at which time you are dying to run to the bathroom, but everyone else on the plane has been waiting until the end of the film to do the same thing. And, besides, the plane has hit an extended wave of turbulence and the pilot has switched on the seatbelt sign, meaning that you will be reprimanded severely if you even think about rising from your seat. Never mind deep vein thrombosis (a.k.a. economy class syndrome), I’m surprised more airplane passengers aren’t dying from exploding bladders.

The ironic thing is that, even without all of the above-mentioned distractions and annoyances, watching on a movie on an airplane wouldn’t be a great experience. The screen is small and/or faraway and the sound quality is miserable, even without the background noise of jet engines. On some planes and/or in some classes, you can at least pick your movie from a selection, but it hardly makes up for the environment. But even disregarding that, airplane movies suffer severe editing. And I swear they speed the things up. On one flight I watched The Rock, which I fortunately had already seen, and it was nearly as good as I remembered it. But it was even more fast-paced than the first time and it seemed like it was over in 45 minutes. One of the most interesting cases of airline editing I have seen was Kingpin, a Farrelly brothers comedy starring Woody Harrelson. One of the gags involved a woman in a light shirt who goes into a freezer. Apparently, the idea was that the cold temperature made two certain points of her anatomy erect. I surmised this because both sides of the woman’s chest suddenly became digitally scrambled, the way they hide suspects’ faces on those reality TV cop shows. The funny thing was that the computerized camouflage was probably more noticeable and attention-getting than whatever special effect was underneath, thereby defeating its purpose entirely. In fact, it probably became a better gag than the original one. Unless it actually was the original gag and wasn’t edited at all. With the Farrelly brothers, it’s hard (no pun intended) to know.

What’s really insidious about movies on airplanes is that you really can’t choose not to watch them. You can choose not to don the headphones, but the screen(s) are right there in front of you—unless you are lucky enough to be on a plane or in a section that has individual screens for every seat. Since my daughter was born, I haven’t even bothered trying to watch movies on airplanes. But my eyes still get drawn to the screen, no matter what else is going on. So, there are a number of movies that I have wound up seeing but not hearing. These include such fare as Angel Eyes, Men of Honor and Remember the Titans. What happens is that I start supplying my own dialog in my head à la Mystery Science Theater. Who knows? Maybe my own scenarios are better than the ones that were written for these films. Or maybe I came up with exactly the same dialog as the real screenwriters. Somehow I doubt it, though. In my version of Men of Honor, Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. were bickering gay lovers.

-S.L., 26 September 2002

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