What is the ideal airplane movie or TV show? Most passengers – more than 90 per cent, according to Air Canada figures – check out the in-flight entertainment systems on long flights. And most of them look for lighter fare: action films, romances and comedies. Although watching Dunkirk on a nine-inch screen reduces the battle to an ant fight, there's nothing surprising here. Whether in the crowds or at the mall, audiences enjoy similar things.
The travel magazine Escape monitored the most popular programming on five major airlines flying into Australia between January and June of last year: The No. 1 movie choice for the early-in-the-year viewers was the recent multiple Oscar nominee La La Land, and the top TV selection was the highly rated sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
Yet there are several ways that the airplane movie-viewing experience is different from being on the ground. On a long flight, you will be interrupted, a dozen or more times, for in-flight announcements, meal services, passengers going to the bathroom or squalling babies. Pick a long film late in the flight and you may never find out the ending.
It's also possible you're not quite feeling yourself while flying. In 2011, in a promotional social-media survey of about 3,000 people, Virgin Atlantic determined that 55 per cent of passengers said airplane travel made them more emotional, with 41 per cent of men saying they cried at airplane movies (no figures on women were available). Virgin Atlantic began putting "emotional health" warnings on romantic comedies.
In a 2011 This American Life radio episode, writer Brett Martin described a "previously unnoted human phenomenon" when he cried at Reese Witherspoon's Sweet Home Alabama and found other people who wept at bad romcoms on planes. Last year, a BBC story titled How Flying Seriously Messes With Your Mind claimed that the combination of high altitude, low humidity, cold temperatures and alcohol could push us over the emotional edge – though hard science was lacking in the report.
But let's not ignore the power of association: Scenes set in airports and on airplanes are a favourite trope of romantic movies – Casablanca, Love Actually, Sleepless in Seattle – where tearful goodbyes and joyful reunions take place.
After many years of watching movies professionally in theatres, I have a difference experience on airplanes. I focus more on the physical details of the scenes – the actors, furniture and backgrounds – rather than getting lost in the story.
My favourite airplane viewing is rewatching old films – Singin' in the Rain, The Third Man, Cabaret, On Her Majesty's Secret Service – where I already know the plot and can bask in the sets and costumes. But I hate missing endings. If it's a transatlantic flight, I tend to save the last couple of hours for channel surfing, or watching things I'm unlikely to see elsewhere, such as oddball Japanese and Korean sitcoms. It's the perfect opportunity to try something new.
Last summer, I did a casual social-media survey asking people, including several in the entertainment business, about their favourite airplane viewing. Many said they wanted to catch up on well-reviewed movies they'd missed, or would watch TV series from services such as HBO that they didn't subscribe to. Most respondents indicated a preference for lighter fare, comedies or romantic movies, if only for the practical reason that they knew they'd only be half-watching.
"Something entertaining enough to keep me interested but not too entertaining to keep me from falling asleep," said one.
Another recent survey indicates a startling characteristic of popular airplane movies: bad behaviour. Last fall, passengers at London's Gatwick Airport were asked to choose their favourite in-flight movies. The top three were Bridesmaids, The Hangover and Meet the Parents.
To put that in perspective: No. 1 (Bridesmaids) and No. 3 (Meet the Parents) are about characters, Kristen Wiig and Ben Stiller, respectively, who get kicked off airplanes for being too disruptive. That's something for airline managers to ponder. What do those pacified, seat-belted passengers want to experience in the long hours between takeoff and touch down? A little vicarious anarchy.
What to watch
Globe film editor Barry Hertz picks his favourites from what the major Canadian airlines currently have on offer.
WestJet: The Boss Baby
Listen, no one is going to tell you The Boss Baby is a great movie. It may not even be a good movie, by the strictest definition. But there is something soothing about watching Alec Baldwin-as-animated-toddler bark out orders while you're soaring in the sky, high above reality. By the time you attempt to wrap your head around the film's many leaps of logic and Glengarry Glen Ross references, you'll likely either be at your destination, or sound asleep, ready for the eventual landing.
Air Canada: Spielberg
You are mid-flight. You need to kill some time, but you also don't want to sacrifice the remaining brain cells that haven't been dulled by recirculated air and teensy, tiny cans of tomato juice. Solution: Watch Spielberg, the recent HBO documentary that covers the director's career. It is almost the perfect airplane movie, in that you get all the killer parts of the director's up (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and down (Amistad) career, with none of the filler. Plus, it's almost 2-1/2 hours long, perfect for that mid-flight lag.
Air Transat: American Made
The Tom Cruise of today is not the Tom Cruise of 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. But that's okay – the star still knows how to flash a toothy grin and charm the hell out of you with his physical prowess. American Made, the actor's latest effort to convince you he's still got the goods, is not A-list material, but it is a solid B-movie that is absolutely committed to keeping you entertained. Just, perhaps, avoid the scenes involving plane crashes. Because, well, you know.
- Barry Hertz