Here are some friendly rules on how to make the most of your in-flight entertainment from someone who’s spent enough time in the sky to know.
Nothing feels less like a cinematic experience than watching a major motion picture on a tiny television screen eight inches away from your face. No matter how alluring the in-flight entertainment options might seem – no matter how long you’ve been putting off The Commuter only to discover it right there in front of you – there is still something extremely disheartening about watching a movie on a three-hour flight. As someone who recently lived in Alaska but often planned annual trips to visit family in Alaska, I often struggled with the convenience of in-flight movies versus the utterly bland and forgettable viewing experience.
Over time, though, I developed a kind of logic that allowed me to make the most of these flights. Movies watched on an airplane still count; I still share my immediate reaction to the movie on Twitter and dutifully log the screening in my Letterboxd account after it’s over. But to feel like I’m making the most of the experience, I’ve come up with a few rules on what I will and won’t watch on airplanes. Hopefully, these will help some of you avoid the mistakes made by others in my life, such as the time [REDACTED] elected to watch Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity at 40,000 feet. No part of that seems like a worthwhile experience.
Let’s start with the golden rules. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid any movies that are prefaced with the dreaded ‘edited for content’ warning. Most R-rated films will feature some degree of editing – a snipped sex scene here, a cut explicit display of violence there – leaving you with approximately 96.7% of the actual film (or 0% if you round down, as you really should). Does it matter in the grand scheme of things that your in-flight screening of Deadpool doesn’t say ‘fuck’ an extra six or seven times? Maybe not, but then again, you’re talking to someone who has long waffled over getting a timecode tattoo because I’m worried the movie scene in question won’t line up with both the theatrical and the home video cuts. These things matter because they do.
It’s also important to prioritize non-American cinema when browsing through the in-flight movies. Delta Airlines, for example, often features a robust selection of Japanese and South Korean movies. These films are rarely edited for content and often feature titles that have yet to receive distribution in the United States, making them a nice little bonus for any cinephiles traveling the country for weddings or college reunions. Back in 2015, our own Rob Hunter reviewed Assassination Classroom, a bonkers action-comedy based on the popular Japanese comic book series of the same name; while the live-action film remains difficult to track down on traditional streaming services, I was able to watch the film for myself on one surprisingly entertaining cross-country flight. When you have the chance to watch something you won’t see otherwise, you take it, even if it’s on a screen the size of your palm.
But what if neither of these scenarios are applicable? What if your airline gives you plenty of options or you have a few hours before your flight with a strong internet connection and enough space on your iPad to download a movie or two? First and foremost, never, ever, watch a movie for the first time on a plane if you think you might watch it seriously in any other circumstances. In-flight entertainment is reserved for movies like Proud Mary and The Foreigner – currently available on an airline near you! – movies that you absolutely skipped at the theater but can have some small flicker of interest in watching someday. I often feel that life is to short to watch mediocre movies you know will only be OK at best, but if you’re given the choice between watching a film on an airplane and never watching it at all, the airplane can (and should) always win out. If all else fails, feel free to rewatch movies with abandon. Once you’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road on the biggest screen possible, you shouldn’t even want to watch it on an iPad on an airplane, but you do you, I guess.
Do I practice what I preach? You betchya. Back in 2016, my wife and I took a flight to Vietnam, which left me plenty of time to work through a few in-flight movies. According to my Letterboxd, the movies I chose to watch on those flights included Run All Night, Independence Day: Resurgence, Seventh Son, Phantom Detective, and Operation Chromite, a perfect summation of all the logic laid out above. The first three were movies that, with all due respect to Jaume Collet-Serra, I probably would never have watched outside an airplane; the latter two were new South Korean releases that I would’ve struggled to track down on American soil. By sticking to these rules, I was able to check out some titles I was mildly interested in without feeling guilty about passing over more deserving works. It may not have been an ideal viewing experience, but now that I’ve seen Independence Day: Resurgence, I feel pretty comfortable saying no circumstances could’ve pulled that film back from the brink.
I mean, what else am I going to do on an airplane? Read?