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Believe it or not, I miss movies on airplanes

Give me two hours with nothing to do and the worst screens available

View of plane’s cabin windows seat with the movie Godzilla vs. Kong superimposed on the screen Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon | Source image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Remember when one of our national pastimes was frequently and publicly complaining about airlines? People tweeted about the poor service and the indignity of airport security or lost baggage, and they endured the theater of “first” or “business class” seating, where airlines casually attempted to provoke miniature class wars countless times a day. These quarrels were all earned: Flying in America is generally a lousy experience, and if we could all resume life as it were before the COVID-19 pandemic, these things would likely still be terrible. I only really miss one part of it: the airplane movie, a movie you probably wouldn’t watch anywhere else except in a tiny metal germ-tube about to yeet you and about a hundred other people into the sky.

While the community feeling doesn’t justify the generally miserable experience of being on a plane, it can still be nice. We’d all sit under the same harsh light, in the same tiny chairs, and all figure out how to solve the same problem: What are we going to do with the next few hours? The sensible answer is often a movie. Probably a bad one.

In ye olde times, there was a reason for this: The airlines picked the movie, and the plane was full of screens all playing the same thing. Usually, it was some kind of blockbuster on its way out of theaters, but not yet available to buy, which meant it was likely to be something you hadn’t seen before, but not necessarily something you wanted to see. Now, most airlines either have their own mini-Netflix installed into the back of every seat, or a custom service to connect your devices to. The selection is much better than it was in the old days, but there’s a certain appeal to watching something in the air you wouldn’t ordinarily be enthusiastic about on the ground.

Part of this is probably due to the fact that this setup is one of the worst imaginable ways to watch a film. There’s the ruthlessly efficient seating, sure, but there’s also the constant roar of the engines and ventilation, and the terrible little LCD screen some airlines install on the back of every seat, probably smudged with fingerprints whether or not it actually has a touchscreen. It’s a lousy way to watch anything, so I’d never want to watch anything I knew I’d care about much. Which meant that when I was flying, I’d take weird, inscrutable chances on films I wouldn’t normally watch at home, even now, when I don’t have much to do for entertainment but stream movies.

Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft hangs from a spar over an immense drop into clouds
The 2018 Tomb Raider revival may be one of the last bad movies I’ve seen on a plane.
Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

This does not mean I am consistent in what I consider airplane material. There are types of movies that to me, make for good airplane viewing — the broadest comedies, the loudest action movies, Meryl Streep in a light role — but not every movie of that type fits the bill. For example: I’ve never seen 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters nor 2017’s Kong Skull Island, even though they’ve both been streaming since approximately the day they started filming. I’d absolutely watch them on a plane, but they don’t seem like they’d be worth my time in any other environment. However, when Godzilla vs. Kong drops on HBO Max this spring, I will not hesitate to log on at home to watch those two slapbox on an aircraft carrier. I contain multitudes.

Saying “I’d watch it on an airplane” is generally understood to be damning with faint praise, but given how long it’s been since I was on one, I’m thinking of it differently. Airline viewing is shooting your shot as a movie-watcher, engaging in one of the only risky behaviors you can safely take in an aggressively safe environment. Besides, a good way to cope with the indignities of flying (which I miss?) is telling people about the lousy movie you just saw.

I haven’t been on a plane in a little over a year. I’m starting to think of airports the way children think of Disney World, as some magical place other people go to to have the time of their lives, maybe a place I’ll get to go someday too. This is ridiculous, of course. Airports don’t have the Na’vi River Journey. And yet, here I am, wondering what movies I haven’t watched that I would have, if I had the chance to go somewhere new.

Granted, this is a frivolous loss to bemoan in the midst of a pandemic that has cost us all so much. It’s just another one of the countless little things we did together in a world where we now do many of them apart. Let’s hope we’ll be doing them again soon — even the kind of miserable things, like trying to keep ourselves entertained while we’re flying to the place where we really want to be.

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