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Best movies to watch on an airplane

It’s common knowledge that flying, especially post-pandemic, has become an ever more rewarding, pleasurable, and luxurious experience, with service, prices, and amenities reaching the pinnacle of…sorry, I can’t finish this sentence, not even as a joke. Flying is terrible and it’s gotten worse, with one horror story after another making us want to hunker down in our mini-prisons (sometimes referred to as “airplane seats”) and drown ourselves in cheap gin at $14 a pop.

One of our few respites from the trials of commercial flight is to escape into our personal entertainment bubbles. Ahead of your next “adventure” in the skies, we offer some movie suggestions to make your trip more endurable.

The Fugitive (1993)

Harrison Ford stars in The Fugitive (1993)
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Harrison Ford plays the titular protagonist, Dr. Richard Kimble, in this adaptation of the hit ‘6os TV show that became a blockbuster and Best Picture nominee. The plot sees Kimble trying to clear his conviction for the murder of his wife while tracking down the real killer and eluding the Federal Marshals that are trying to return him to prison. The Marshals are led by Samuel Gerard, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who won an Oscar for reading his lines in that particular Tommy Lee Jones cadence that amused audiences to no end at the time. Jones had more or less done the same thing in Under Siege a year earlier, but I think we can all agree that while an action movie may occasionally get top Oscar nominations, it will never be one starring Steven Seagal.

So why watch this one on a plane? Well, for one thing, it’s darn entertaining. Nothing beats a tense thriller about a loner pursuing a just cause up against tough odds. But mainly because it features the most exciting train wreck in cinema history. (J.J. Abrams tried to top it in Super 8, but his version is way over the top and too obviously digital. J.J. Abrams over the top and too digital? You don’t say … ). In the scene, a train crashes into the prison bus transporting Kimble and then derails, becoming a fiery missile bearing down on the man, who barely manages to avoid becoming buried under the smoking wreckage. It’s more than enough to make you glad you flew rather than taking Greyhound or Amtrak to visit Aunt Sally.

You can stream The Fugitive on HBO Max and rent it on other digital platforms.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains (1987)

Speaking of “it could always be worse,” here is one of the classic movies about the nightmare of travel. Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to get home from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving, but what should be a hop, skip, and a jump turns into a harrowing Dantean odyssey through the frozen demon underworld (otherwise known as the Midwest). What’s worse, Neal encounters a fellow grounded traveler, Del Griffith (John Candy), who is absolutely determined to help him out even though snobby old Neal makes it clear that his sort doesn’t mingle with the proletariat.

Do they become friends and learn Important Stuff about life? Of course, but not before Neal especially endures every manner of travel humiliation. Unfortunately for him, Del is far more adept at negotiating regular folk and so Neal is forced to accept his help getting home. So next time you’re tempted to complain to the flight attendant about silly old things like being denied basic human rights, remember, it could be a lot worse. At least you’re in the air!

You can stream Planes, Trains, and Automobiles on AMC+ and rent it on other digital platforms.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)

Bruce Willis stars in Die Hard 2
20th Century Fox

This is the best Die Hard movie. There, I said it. It’s also the scariest for people like me whose most harrowing fear is going down in a jetliner. Does that happen in this movie? Yep. After some terrorists seize control of Dulles International in Washington D.C. and don’t have their demands met. More flights are imperiled as well, including that of Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) the wife of Lt. John McClane (Bruce Willis) of the LAPD, whom he just saved from terrorists a mere two years earlier in the original Die Hard, along with a whole bunch of other people. “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he demands to know — and again during the holidays, no less. Why, John, you silly Christmas goose, it’s the mandate of all sequels!

Anyway, he’s peeved off enough about it to kill a whole bunch more bad guys, including in some gnarly ways like shoving an icicle into a dude’s brain. To tell you more would be spoiling the fun, but suffice to say there’s a bounty of explosions and wisecracks to satisfy the most die-hard Die Hard fan. Just make sure you download a copy onto your personal device ahead of time, as the movie is unlikely to be featured in the inflight entertainment options due to obvious reasons.

You can stream Die Hard 2 on Hulu and rent it on other digital platforms.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy  (2001-2003)

Liv Tyler stars as Arwen in LOTR
New Line Cinema

This one is for our international travelers. Watching Peter Jackson’s Extended Edition Lord of the Rings trilogy takes about 11 1/2 hours, which is perfect for those Los Angeles to New Zealand (where the trilogy was filmed) flights as those clock in at around 13 hours lonf.  That’s one screening of the Extended Editions plus three or four trips to the bathroom. And if the headwind is prompting an early arrival, you can shave off a few of the six endings from Return of the King, preferably the ones with the Hobbits bouncing on Frodo’s bed at Minas Tirith like they had one too many espressos while filming a Sleep Number commercial.

Of course, you don’t have to fly to Aotearoa — the lovely Māori name for the country. The trilogy will get you through international flights to any faraway destination, even if you’re sure to be terribly disappointed when you arrive that it’s not New Zealand, the greatest place on earth, where you can visit all the LOTR filming locations and do a little nerd dance of excitement for your 12 Instagram followers.

You can stream The Lord of the Rings trilogy on HBO Max and rent it on other digital platforms.

Stanley Kubrick snoozefest double feature: 2001 (1968) and The Shining (1980)

Keir Dullea stars in 2001.
Warner Bros.

If there’s one thing that provides the ultimate relief on a commercial flight, it’s unconsciousness. Unfortunately, some of us have trouble catching those zzzs in an Iron Chair with elbows passive aggressively jammed into our ribs. Here’s where you need some help that even the most powerful pharmaceuticals can’t provide: boring movies.

Hey, I’m not going to pretend that Stanley Kubrick isn’t one of the masters of cinema (as a film scholar, I’m contractually not allowed to). But can we say that his films are exciting? 2001 contains loads of lyrical images positively dripping with cosmic philosophical overtones. But nothing much, you know, happens. At a sonic level it’s perfect to induce sleep as well, with all that classical music and the droning monotone voice of the famous computer, Hal-9000.

Jack Nicholson stars in The Shining
Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

The Shining meanwhile is beloved by cultists and film nerds who prattle on about Kubrick’s  symmetrical images. And, yes, we all remember famous moments involving Jack Nicholson behaving more or less like Jack always did in the movies, except with slightly more fire ax. But the one thing devotees tend to ignore is, for a horror picture, The Shining is not scary. At all. In fact, the movie is often quite dull.

Finally, the fact that Kubrick’s stunning visuals should only be seen on the biggest screens possible will mute their effects even more on your tiny screen, an extra bonus to help settle you in for a long nap. When someone asks you if you brought the Ambien, just say, “nope, I got my Kubrick!” and then smile manically like Nicholson until they fall asleep.

You can stream both The Shining and 2001 on HBO Max.

Gone Girl (2014)

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
20th Century Studios

So why are airplane rows three seats long anyway? Is that so a single person is forced to sit with a couple? A couple who is all cozy in their sweats and headphones, cuddling and canoodling and doing sweet little things for each other in all their lovey-dovey consideration? Is that so you, the single person, have to reside within their special space in such intimate proximity that their gross love pheromones practically clog your pores? Don’t they know you are getting over history’s most calamitous breakup? Don’t they know that love is a trap, a scam, a fraud, a facade, a sick cosmic joke that’s doomed to end in the most painful way possible? Well, just in case they don’t know, remind them by dialing up a screening of Gone Girl, the 2014 adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel starring Ben Affleck as a failure of a man (!) who gets exactly what he deserves after years of treating his wife badly.

The wife in question (Rosamund Pike) is the “cool girl” (her words) gone unhinged in an elaborate plan to stage her own kidnapping and possibly murder to show him a thing or two about the consequences of cheating, and, well, being an all-around dirtbag. Do either learn anything, become better people, or resolve their shared trauma? Watch the film and find out! Near the end, it’s your job to tilt your laptop screen jusssssst enough towards the blissed-out pair next to you so they can be made to understand what Gone Girl’s cynical climactic coda is all about.

You can rent Gone Girl on most digital platforms including Prime Video.

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