Do you remember when one of our national pastimes complained frequently and publicly about airlines? People tweeted about the poor service and unworthiness of airport security or lost luggage and endured the theater of “first” or “business class” seats where airlines tried countless times a day to provoke miniature class wars. These arguments were all deserved: Flying in America is generally a lousy experience, and if we could all get back to life, so to speak, before the COVID-19 pandemic, these things would probably still be awful. I really miss only part of it: the airplane movie, a movie you probably wouldn’t see anywhere else except in a tiny metal seed tube that will take you and about a hundred other people to heaven.
While the sense of community doesn’t justify the generally miserable experience of being on the plane, it can still be nice. We’d all sit in the same tiny chairs under the same harsh light and all figure out how to solve the same problem: what do we do with the next few hours? Often the reasonable answer is a movie. Probably a bad one.
In the old days there was a reason for this: the airlines selected the movie, and the plane was full of screens where everyone was playing the same thing. Usually it was some kind of blockbuster on the way out of theaters but not yet available, which meant that it was likely something you hadn’t seen before, but not necessarily something you had seen wanted to see. Now most airlines have either their own mini-Netflix installed in the back of each seat or a custom service that you can connect your devices to. The choice is much better than it used to be, but there’s a certain appeal to seeing something in the air that you wouldn’t normally be excited about on the ground.
Part of this is likely due to the fact that this setup is one of the worst possible ways to watch a movie. There’s the recklessly efficient sitting, of course, 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, likely smeared with fingerprints whether or not it actually has one Has touch screen or not. It’s a lousy way of seeing something, so I would never want to see something that I knew I was interested in over a lot. Which meant that while flying I was taking weird, unfathomable risks for movies that I wouldn’t ordinarily see at home, even now when I’m not doing much entertainment but streaming movies.
This does not mean that I am consistent about aircraft material. There are Types of films that for me allow good airplane viewing – the broadest comedies, the loudest action films, Meryl Streep in an easy role – but not every film of this kind fits the bill. For example: I’ve never seen 2019 Godzilla: King of the Monsters still 2017 Kong Skull Island, although both of them have been streaming since about the day they started filming. I would absolutely Watch them on an airplane, but they don’t seem worth my time in any other setting. But when Godzilla versus Kong If I drop on HBO Max this spring, I won’t hesitate to log in at home to see these two slapboxes on an aircraft carrier. I have a variety.
Saying, “I’d see it on a plane” is generally condemned with weak praise, but given how long it’s been since I’ve been on one, I think differently about it. Airline viewing will capture your shot as a movie viewer, engaging in one of the few risky behaviors that you can safely perform in an aggressively safe environment. Plus, it’s a great way to deal with the indecency of flying (which I miss?) By 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 kids think of Disney World, as a magical place other people go to spend the time of their lives, maybe a place I can go one day too. That is of course ridiculous. Airports don’t have that Na’vi river trip. And yet, here I am wondering which films I would not have seen if I had the chance to go to a new place.
Granted, this is a frivolous loss to lament amid a pandemic that has cost us all so much. It’s just one of the myriad little things we’ve done together in a world where we now do many of them separately. Let’s hope we’ll do them again soon – even the kind of miserable things like trying to entertain ourselves while flying to where we really want to be.