The Guilt-Free Pleasure of Airplane Movies

Amid the endless tiny indignities of air travel, only one true retreat remains.

Animated gif of a screen on an airplane seat playing snippets of movies
DreamWorks Pictures; The Atlantic

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.

For most of us, to travel by air is to endure a million tiny indignities: strictly enforced cabin hierarchies, ludicrously small pretzel snack packs, coffin-size lavatories, vicious elbow battles over shared armrests—never mind all the cancellations and delays.

When I’m trapped in a metal tube, trying my best to keep my limbs from inconveniencing anyone else around me, I find myself clinging to any small pleasure I can find, even if it’s just a cup of muddy coffee. Up here, the illusion of luxury might as well be actual luxury. Airplanes are a place of needle-thin margins, where an ounce of comfort for yourself can come at a steep cost to someone else. Only one true retreat remains: watching free movies.

For me, air time is like stolen time. Because Wi-Fi costs extra, I can justify staying offline and unreachable, indulging in free entertainment. And so, from inside a haze of anti-anxiety medication, mild dehydration, back pain, and belly bloat, I plan my escape. If the plane has seatback touch screens with on-demand movies, I browse the library like I’m in a fancy chocolate shop. So many choices! Something for every palate! Mmm, but what am I in the mood for?

I have a weirdly good memory of all the movies I’ve watched on airplanes, and my picks invariably fall into a few categories. The first is Blockbusters I’ll Never See in a Theater—in other words, any superhero movie. I am too behind on the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point to even pretend that I’ll catch up, and yet I’ve seen both Guardians of the Galaxy films plus Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on airplanes. The second is Indie Films I’ve Heard Good Things About—smaller, well-reviewed movies, such as Dope, Beyond the Lights, and Clouds of Sils Maria, that I can feel good and cultured about having watched, and that I otherwise might not have made time for. The third is Old Comfort Movies, the ones that I rarely actively seek out anymore but that make me laugh and cry and happy to be alive. (Moana. End of list.)

As someone who flies from the East Coast to Guam somewhat regularly—that’s an entire day lost to travel, and nearly another day lost to the time difference—I’ve become used to thinking of long-haul flights in terms of how many movies I can watch. An 8.5-hour flight from Houston to Honolulu? That’s a few movies plus a couple of naps. (Miniseries binges can work just as well. Earlier this year, I watched all of HBO’s The White Lotus on a 14-hour flight from Newark to Narita.)

Others have also touted the small delights of watching movies during flights. In early 2021, Joshua Rivera wrote for Polygon that airplane movies were the one thing he missed about not being able to fly during the pandemic. “When I was flying, I’d take weird, inscrutable chances on films I wouldn’t normally watch at home,” Rivera said, confirming my belief that airplanes are the ultimate liminal space—a place that seems sort of fake, where our actions don’t matter as much, where we feel somehow more free.

Of course, like any other part of the air-travel experience, movie watching can have its downsides. Ryan Lambie wrote for Den of Geek of the many questions he asks himself when selecting a film on a plane: “Which movie won’t be ruined by the fact that the picture will have been chopped to fit on a tiny 4:3 screen, thus removing any sense of cinematic grandeur? Which movie isn’t so stuffed full of nudity or screams of sexual ecstasy that you’ll have to worry about what other passengers might think of you if they catch you watching it?” With apologies to Christopher Nolan, I once made the mistake of trying to rewatch Tenet on a plane. The first time I saw it was in a theater, and I had trouble understanding the plot (reverse entropy! inverted time!); I wanted to give it another go. But the flight was unusually loud and the audio quality especially poor, so my grasp of the story remained tenuous. I settled for the thrill of watching Nolan’s balletic action sequences unfold in reverse.

As our entertainment choices on the ground increase, there’s something wonderful about making do with the smaller viewing menu that most airlines provide. Of course, more passengers now have the option of buying a Wi-Fi pass and streaming Netflix or Prime Video from their personal devices. And many carriers pour money into licensing and curating their own huge libraries. But I like not spending an hour agonizing over what to watch, and up in the air, where time doesn’t feel real anyway, low-stakes choices like these are easier to make.

Surely some of the fondness I feel for airplane movies goes back to when I was a kid and the entire plane would watch the same film—simultaneously on a big screen in the middle and on tiny screens to the side. I remember watching Godzilla and Shrek this way and feeling like the stuffy cabin had suddenly transformed into a glamorous movie theater in the sky, like I shared a deep connection with all these anonymous bodies sitting with me in the dark. Something of that small joy surfaces in me every time I squint at a tiny screen, munching on my terrible little pretzels, cocooned by the narrow armrests, the roar of the plane’s engines dulled to a hum—nothing on my mind except what the next scene will bring.