We are all, all of us, currently on a plane.
No, really—hear me out. Assuming you are currently in accordance with the latest CDC guidelines, your present reality looks something like this: You are trapped in a confined space (formerly known as “home”). The food—whether prepared wearily in situ, months after the novelty of feeding the sourdough starter wore off, or ordered in and pried lukewarm piece by lukewarm piece from too many plastic containers—is bad. The entertainment selection might have started out promising, but the decent options are dwindling fast. You find yourself eyeing the bathroom doorknob and wondering just who or what else has touched it. Your children, if you have them, are mid-meltdown; passersby (your superego) shoot you dirty looks. You are uncomfortable, restless, bloated, anxious; your knees creak. You want to go somewhere, but there is nowhere to go. This is a state you realize you should be grateful for, because mortal peril lurks just outside, as each judder from the nightmare beyond your window reminds you. We are all—spiritually, at least—on a plane, circling endlessly overheard until, folks, the weather clears up and a gate becomes available.
The world has been gifted Money Plane, a movie whose bizarre, action-heavy plot and distinct air of whatever the opposite of an award show is would, by point of fact, make for ideal plane (or spiritual plane) viewing. But it is far from the first movie to be set on a plane, and in spite of the fact that it revolves around a heist on a high-stakes casino plane, it is not even close to the most outlandish film of the overlandish genre.
In honor of its arrival, and maybe a little bit in honor of our present reality, I present: a unified theory of plane movies, a genre whose basic premise is: What if a plane, but worse? Add an electrical storm. A system malfunction. Russian terrorists. An evil flight crew. Snakes!
(Some quick caveats: We are not talking about movies in which planes briefly feature, however significantly; see ya, Bridesmaids and Castaway. And with apologies to Top Gun et al., we are restricting this to commercial aircraft, with an exception for Air Force One.)
Snakes on a Plane
You might not believe me, which is your right in about the same way that not wearing your mask when you walk down the goddang sidewalk where yes, you are passing people, for the love of God is, but: Snakes on a Plane holds up! It does, truly. There are snakes on the motherfuckin’ plane. They are not necessarily well animated snakes, but, well, the movie has Samuel L. Jackson, Kenan Thompson, and a weirdly clean-cut Bobby Cannavale. Also: Julianna Margulies, who plays an uber-competent, no-nonsense flight attendant staffing her very last flight before she leaves to go become a lawyer? Is Snakes on a Plane part of the Good Wife universe? Was Alicia moonlighting as a flight attendant before Peter got busted? I digress.
If you take away nothing else, have this: Serpent fatalities one and two are a pair of lovebirds who sneak off to the bathroom to smoke a joint and join the mile high club, only to have a snake interrupt the festivities in vaguely pornographic fashion. (I wish I were kidding!) The actors playing the dearly departeds: Samantha McLeod and Taylor Kitsch. Snakes on a Plane premiered in August 2006; just two months later, Kitsch debuted in Friday Night Lights as Tim Riggins, meaning there were at least some viewers of the latter who looked at Riggins and said, “Oh, hey, it’s the guy whose girlfriend’s [censored] was fatally bitten by a snake in a plane bathroom!” Texas forever.
Air Force One
My fiancé has long had a particular disdain for movies featuring Air Force One. He has some experience with the real deal: He’s a White House correspondent. As a result, he finds cinema’s lack of vérité in this area particularly troubling.
But his complaints are more specific than simple inaccuracy. As with the Golden Gate Bridge, things tend not to go well for Air Force One in its cinematic depictions—in White House Down, for example, the whole plane, er, takes the White House’s lead. But when things go wrong in the movies—well, they have a way of involving the press corps. In Iron Man 3, a terrorist blows a hole in the back of the plane, right about where the press cabin is; Tony Stark deduces that 13 people—the exact number of journalists who make up the traveling pool, and thus can be found on virtually any Air Force One flight—find themselves sucked into space.
In Air Force One, the bad guys come for President Harrison Ford (er, James Marshall) after he does something too democratic, or something. How do they manage to infiltrate POTUS’s airborne inner sanctum? By posing as reporters, naturally.
The number of calamities—hijacking, missile, fuel outage, fireball from mid-air refueling gone wrong, fistfight on an open-to-the-sky loading dock—that befall Air Force One’s Air Force One are baffling, if not exactly reminiscent of the typical plane experience. But then, neither is being on Air Force One. Or so I’ve heard.
Airplane! (and Airplane II: The Sequel)
My thoughts on Robert Stack have been established. Let the great Adam Nayman guide you through the rest.
Sully and Flight
2012’s Flight and 2016’s Sully have the same basic premise: Pilot (one, the fictional Whip Whitaker; the other, the very real Sully Sullenberger) completes improbable aviation feat and saves numerous passengers (a passenger jet barrel roll; the Miracle on the Hudson)—but then has complicated feelings about it! Mostly, these movies take place not on the planes, but in hotels and board rooms and NTSB hearings. Perhaps my most cherished hobby is reading horrifyingly detailed accounts of nightmarish plane crashes; Sully’s and Flight’s frenzied cockpit scenes certainly belong to that genre. But here the passengers are mostly an afterthought. (Just as you would be in a real-life disaster; pull your horrible donut pillow close; nighty night!)
If you remember the heady days of 2005, you, too, may have wondered: How is there an entire movie about Jodie Foster running up and down the aisle of a plane and demanding that someone tell her where her daughter is? On the one hand: That really is the plot of Flightplan, of which scarcely 10 minutes take place outside the [light flashes across aviator glasses] double-decker Elgin E-474. On the other: Principally because Foster plays an aviation engineer with entirely too much knowledge about the plane’s layout, which includes weirdly vast passenger-less areas, there’s at least slightly more to work with than you would think.
I’m take it or leave it on the mystery of her daughter, who either vanished from her seat or was never on the plane at all, but Flightplan does masterfully re-create the experience of being on a red-eye flight where the pilot keeps turning the lights on and using the intercom to tell you things you do not care about. By far the best part of the movie is when Foster, handcuffed and thoroughly gaslit after hours of screaming, scrambling, and occasionally attacking fellow passengers, is asked by a flight attendant if she’d like anything to eat. She does not seem interested, which is probably not because the food would have been bad. But the food would definitely have been bad.