The Unique Experience of Watching Movies on Planes

I spent a collective 36 hours of my winter break caged in a metal tube hurtling through the sky at 500 mph. For a person who’s 6’4” and generally hates flying, I’m lucky the trauma was minimal. However, since seatback entertainment screens have made personal movie-watching a possibility, the experience of flying has fundamentally changed for me; planes are still a grueling hell, but with those tiny, bacteria-infested screens, the hours pass faster.

On the other hand, the screens are also changing the way I, and the rest of the 151 million annual average American fliers, watch movies — and arguably not for the better. They’re slowly but surely turning movies into a form of purely passive entertainment rather than a work of art with which to engage. And as a writer for The Student’s renowned Arts and Living section, I’m not going down without a fight (or at least a futile diatribe).

I’m a humanities major at a liberal arts college, so naturally my movie preferences tend toward indies, award-winners, documentaries and Wes Anderson. Yet, on flights, that all seems to go out the pressure-sealed window. I guzzle the big-budget, Hollywood blockbusters until I inevitably pass out to the sound of someone blowing up another Death Star facsimile. In fact, flying is the only reason I’ve kept up with the Marvel universe over the past 12 years (for better or for worse).

Why do I put myself through this though? Because these movies are long, reliable and fast-paced enough to eliminate any room for thought. I can just slump over in my sleep-deprived haze and stop thinking about the fact that Hawkeye has been in every Avengers movie, but we still know nothing about his backstory (what is his trauma?). My brain doesn’t have to do any work.

I’m not trying to say that watching movies on planes is bad just because I pick bad movies. Big-budget Hollywood movies actually can be great; I just usually miss what makes them great if I’m watching them on a plane. For example, on my most recent flights, I grew bored of dialogue and explosions, so I watched “A Star Is Born” for a change of pace. The music definitely did the trick, but — after thinking about the movie days later — I realized that I’d completely missed the startling and nuanced portrayal of addiction. Retrospectively, I really wish I’d paid more attention to that part. After all, complex portrayals of complex situations can be what make great movies great (“Brokeback Mountain” certainly isn’t renowned for its narrative simplicity!), but because I was mostly tuned-out when there wasn’t a guitar on screen, “A Star Is Born” could only be a good movie for me — not a great one.

But it’s not just a matter of enjoyment for me. As extreme as it may sound, I think passive movie-watching might mess with my morals, long term. Even if unconsciously, we take away certain messages from movies. To use the example of “A Star Is Born” again, one might draw the conclusion that even our idols are deeply flawed, or that it’s okay to ask for help. However, when you don’t actually take the time and energy to engage with the story, you might come to some dangerous conclusions. A passive viewing of “A Star Is Born” could leave a viewer with the overarching impression that to be a good artist, you have to suffer from addiction and depression (or marry someone who does!). An impressionable viewer might end up a severely depressed rock star if they’re not careful.

There’s an equally worrisome flip-side to my moral argument; in the same way passive viewers might miss positive messages, they also might be less capable of discerning and rejecting flawed ones. In fact, this actually almost happened to me with another movie from one of the flights: “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Though I honestly didn’t like the movie, I loved the concept. Biopic of an iconic queer rockstar? Hell yeah — let’s get that representation. However, while watching the movie, I didn’t actually pay any attention to the way it portrayed queerness; I was too busy humming along to “Another One Bites the Dust” (and trying to keep up with director Bryan Singer and director-turned-executive-producer Dexter Fletcher’s machine gun approach to film editing).

As such, I wasn’t aware of the problems with that portrayal until doing some reading on it before writing this article. Had I not done that reading, I might have inadvertently praised a fairly pernicious misrepresentation of Freddie Mercury’s life as a queer man. That’s not something I want to be doing! Moral of the story: don’t end up like me. Be wary of what you watch and how you watch — especially on planes. Or just don’t fly. Planes emit too much carbon anyway. (Try Amtrak; it only lost $29.8 million last year!)