In his inaugural column for The Experientialist, The Layover – a new and recurring addition to our feel-good newspaper with a humorous touch and a finger on the pulse of all the ways luxury travel is developing – Zack Cahill argues that in-flight movies are one of the last examples of media scarcity… and that we should cherish them.
I’m going to make the argument that the 2019 Charlize Theron/Seth Rogan romantic comedy Long Shot is the ultimate in-flight movie.
In-flight movies are an interesting phenomenon in that they’re one of the last forms of media scarcity, where limited selection forces us into a left-field choice.
Life was teeming with situations like this in the past: from going to the cinema without knowing what was on to strolling the aisles of video rental stores, trying to find something the whole family would go for.
Both of these experiences are casualties of technology. Nowadays, you’ve booked your cinema ticket before you enter the building, but not so long ago, you’d wander in, take a look at the timetable, and choose something that starts soon and looks watchable. And your first choice might have been sold out! It was exactly this method that introduced me to the thoroughly un-seminal 2003 Nancy Meyers effort Something’s Gotta Give, which then became one of those ‘personal classics’ – something you know is nothing special, but return to often… like pot noodles or Dermot O’Leary.
The video rental store experience has long since fallen victim to Netflix and their ilk, which don’t offer the same experience. The endless doom-scroll through your streamer of choice really doesn’t have the same charm, because it feels infinite. What you experience is not the caution-to-the-wind frisson of picking an outlier, but the frustrating sense that the perfect choice is just another scroll away.
Which leaves us with the in-flight movie. In the era of cheap ubiquitous travel, it’s the last form of media scarcity we have. What makes a good one? As I see it, you’ve got two options.
One: A classic you’ve seen many times. This is not the time to finally watch Citizen Kane, or introduce your partner to Die Hard. You’re watching this thing on a small, low-resolution screen with tiny headphones, most likely more than a little tipsy. Not ideal. If you’re watching Die Hard for the 500th time, however, as I recently did on an overnight return from Mexico, well, it’s like slipping into a beloved armchair by the fire as rain lashes the windows. Pure comfort.
Option two (my personal favourite): the competently made, middling rom-com.
The plot will likely require a bare minimum of attention, for one. Even the weaker ones tend to have a couple of decent central performances and the actors should at the bare minimum be nice to look at. It’s just such a reliable formula. How can you not root for a stressed out, big-city fashion journalist returning to her small hometown to introduce her fiancé to her parents, only to find herself falling for the local bit of rough for whom she carried a torch as a teenage ugly duckling? Or, you know, some pile of old s*** like that. Slap a Witherspoon in it and we’re gold.
But there’s an extra layer here because we cry more on flights. I thought it was just me but it turns out the reduced air pressure causes mild hypoxia, which is associated with reduced inhibitions and less emotional stability. Virgin Atlantic even introduced warnings at the start of particularly weepy movies. So do choose carefully if you don’t want to join the ‘Mile Cry Club’. I once found myself devastated by the 2015 Irish movie Sing Street, a musical caper about a group of Dublin boys at a Christian Brothers school exactly like the one I went to. As the triumphant final scene played out, I felt the prickling behind my eyes and with the sudden smash, a cut to the title card: ‘For brothers everywhere’. The floodgates opened.
It’s this extra layer that makes the rom-com the best choice: because you’ve tuned in for some braindead J.Lo/McConaughey nonsense and before you know it, you believe true love really exists, wiping the snot away with your G&T napkin.
A strong contender for the title of the best of all in-flight movies is Danny Boyle’s recent, thoroughly forgettable Yesterday. It’s not a bad movie, but not quite a good one, either – elevated only by some charming performances, a surprisingly funny acting turn by Ed Sheeran, and a whole bunch of Beatles songs. It’s the purest fluff. You barely need to pay attention to get the gist. I briefly nodded off and woke up to Robert Carlyle playing John Lennon. How did that happen? Who cares, here’s a bunch of school kids singing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.
But the best in recent years, for my money, is Long Shot: it’s the perfect blend of competently made, nice to look at, occasionally amusing and instantly forgettable. A great example of a movie that barely exists. It cost millions! Has big stars! But have you seen it? Have you ever heard someone mention it until now?
And yet, as the cabin lights dim, and the flight attendant brings your third red wine and the pilot drones on with all that cruising-at-ten-thousand-feet/tracking-eastward-over-the-Alps crap, slowly but surely, you find yourself rooting for the plucky, mismatched pair. You find yourself invested in Rogan’s lovable schmuck speech writer, O’Shea Jackson’s charming BBF (Black Best Friend, a classic rom-com trope), Theron’s serious but sexy Secretary of State.
Will Theron’s presidential campaign succeed? Will Rogan and Theron overcome their differences and follow their hearts?
You won’t be surprised by the answers. But you will be moderately entertained for 90 minutes or so, with the bare minimum of effort on your part. It won’t even matter if you nod off halfway through (which goes for most, good in-flight movies). You’ll laugh a couple of times and you might even cry a bit. You’re ten thousand feet in the air and no one can get to you, so you might as well strap yourself in and lower your expectations.
Honourable mention: Bros. An admirable attempt to fit the format of the rom-com around a gay romance. It’s not that great. But there are a couple of orgies in it to scandalise your fellow passengers.
Illustration by Martin Perry
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