Don't Watch Great Movies on Airplanes

movies to watch on airplanes
Shutterstock/Walt Disney Pictures
Shutterstock/Walt Disney Pictures
Editor's Note: The strong opinions expressed in this story do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Thrillist. It is merely the author's stance, though having read this disclaimer, it is also now your stance, legally speaking. Kidding! You are now within your right to (politely) question the author's sanity.

We've all been on both sides of this conversation:

"So, I finally saw Mad Max: Fury Road."

"Wasn't it great? The stunts are unreal."

"... Eh, it was OK."

"Wait, what? Really? You love action movies. This is a great action movie."

"Yeah, it was fine. Pretty weird, actually..."

"Where did you see it?"

"... and the chase stuff wasn't that crazy..."

"Where did you see it?"

"... I kind of dozed off in the middle of it..."

"Where did you see it?"

"Oh, on my red-eye flight fr--"


star trek facepalm picard

In-flight entertainment is a diabolical luxury

The Wright brothers invented and flew the first airplane in 1903. Commercial aviation took off after World War II. By the 1960s, airlines were screening movies for passengers using compact, 16mm projectors. The advent of video made 39,000ft-viewing a mainstay. Everyone involved meant well.

Your standard backseat video screen is a terrible way to watch a movie. It's also effortless. Of course you want to watch free anything on an airplane. In-flight movies provide instant distraction from the guy to your left, whose elbow is slowly caving in your pancreas, and the mother to your right, who can't get her baby to stop farting.

Thanks to expensive deals with Hollywood studios, airlines offer recognizable titles that were in theaters 10 minutes ago. And they're absorbing; unlike the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory -- you know, the one where Sheldon makes a Superman joke and a Star Trek actor cameos -- a 90-minute feature promises substance, sustained plot, and a story that you're guaranteed to finish before landing. If you remember critics and audiences alike praising your choice movie, surely it's good enough to pair with an airplane vodka cranberry. You've been meaning to see it anyway.


airplane - in-flight entertainment
Paramount Pictures

An airplane is the Saw version of your couch

Movie-goers value the theater like Jars of Clay exalts the church. When the lights go down, reality falls away and the movie (as long as you silenced your phone) takes hold. It's pure. Many have ditched the theater experience for streaming services and pristine home theater setups. How can anyone argue? Taking off your pants and watching The Hunger Games for the eighth time has obvious rewards over a multiplex full of hormonal teenagers and sticky seats (unrelated). But let's be honest: when was the last time you cued up the Apple TV, turned off your phone, dimmed the lights, and watched a movie? In the era of multitasking and attention disorders, few could pass the AP Netflix exam. 

A jet cabin compounds the home-viewing handicap ten-fold. There's a reason airlines kept up sleep masks over full meals in their budget massacre -- unless you're crushing it in first class, every waking moment on an airplane is living hell. The seats are designed to fit no one's head. The leaning seat in front of you forces the screen to sit at a canted angle. You are in a constant state of futz, be it from need-to-pee neighbors or turbulence that threatens to spill your Coke. Then there's the invisible. Pressure conditions induce fatigue, clog your ears, and make you gassy. No one wants to be holding back farts while trying to watch Room. You, and Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, deserve better.

airplane movie sweating
Paramount Pictures

A plane's screen size will break your soul

Movies need room to breathe. It's why summer movies continue to grow in scale, and television eventually converted to wide-screen. Aside from directors who stage every scene an inch away from the actors' noses, an airplane screen will do rip-roaring, fist-pumping, precision-calibrated CINEMA zero favors.

Each frame of Mad Max: Fury Road has eight gears turning at once. Star Wars: The Force Awakens revels in the grandeur of a familiar galaxy. Furious 7 might be dumb as bricks, but Vin Diesel's shiny bald head can only propel its machismo so far. The problem isn't limited to action movies. Sicario's slow burn will fizzle out by minimizing its backdrop. Do you think the crew at Pixar spent five years animating every hair on Amy Poehler's digital head so you could watch the soft, blown-out colors of the airline Inside Out? Quentin Tarantino shot his standoff Western The Hateful Eight  on "glorious 70mm," a visual experience impossible to replicate, even on 70in televisions. 

No wonder you hated [enter movie your friends can't shut up about]. Our big screen entertainment plays with foreground and background, sends your eyes racing from one end of a wide frame to another. The plane chair screen stuffs those images into a one-size-fits-all box. Your Scotch tape-abusing dad has an easier time wrapping Christmas presents than plane screens do serving Hollywood's blockbusters. The technology isn't there. And then there's all the squinting...

The Danish Girl
Focus Features

So there's this thing called "nuance"...

Last year's The Danish Girl is a recipe for plane-viewing disaster. The story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, is a finespun love story. Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander deliver performances where every gesture, every sideways glance informs the dramatic arcs. It's a quiet picture, teetering on the edge of a boring movie. And The Danish Girl earned just enough quantifiable praise -- "fresh" on the ol' Rotten Tomatoes -- that, while you missed it coming and going from theaters, you'll jump on during that Sunday morning flight to Phoenix, Arizona. 

You will hate The Danish Girl.

vin diesel in the last witch hunter
Universal Pictures

Watch dumb movies on a plane

Allow me to toss my artiste beret into garbage fire of Criterion laserdiscs and say: there are perfect movies to watch on an airplane. The stale screening situation has an inverse effect on both the goofy and truly awful. What cramps The Avengers' style brushes Jurassic World's triceratops-sized flaws under the rug. The latest Adam Sandler comedy? You will laugh out loud (if only to remind yourself you're still breathing)! Even Vin Diesel's Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy epic The Last Witch Hunter should entertain when senses are dulled and expectations are nonexistent. The Rock's latest disaster movie welcomes your half-hearted focus, the 18th installment of Divergent should provide enough ambience to drift to slumberland, and The Minions' chipper attitude will only strengthen your crossword puzzle skills.

With so many disposable options, think before catching Creed, Bridge of Spies, or The Martian on your next flight. They're great movies. It's up to you to see them that way.

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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment editor. He previously wrote for Grantland,, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. His favorite movie of all time is Groundhog Day. Find him on Twitter: @misterpatches.