What to watch: How to survive a long-haul flight with the perfect plane viewing formula

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
5 Min Read
What you're aiming for is the medium place, like on The Good Place.
What you're aiming for is the medium place, like on The Good Place. Credit: NBCUniversal

There are few things redeemable about long-haul flights. Unless you’re in business class, it’s a woeful experience that is, at best, forgettable. Why is there always a not-so-mysterious odour wafting from a neighbour?

The tyranny of distance means Australians laugh at Europeans who baulk at the prospect of any flight longer than three hours. For us, the eight-hour flight from Sydney to Singapore is a short hop.

But it doesn’t mean the experience isn’t one of acquiescence. You have to accept your defeat. Stop fighting it, you’re stuck, there’s nothing you can do to make it better.

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The only control you have is how to make the time go faster.

Most of the international carriers servicing Australia’s major cities have a robust onboard library of movies and TV. But sometimes when there’s too much choice, it becomes overwhelming.

You can make the wrong decision, which can have the effect of making your flight feel even longer. Also, not all plane viewing is equal. Some things should never be experienced on a small screen when you’re in survival mode.

A Ghost Story is definitely not plane viewing.
A Ghost Story is definitely not plane viewing. Credit: A24

A friend once told me she watched David Lowery’s A Ghost Story on a flight to Europe and she absolutely hated it. A Ghost Story is an emotionally raw and formally inventive indie drama about grief, time and ephemerality. It also has a four-and-a-half-minute scene of Rooney Mara sat on a kitchen floor eating a pie. It’s not a plane movie.

So, what is a plane movie? And what is the goal?

If, for you as it is for me, air travel is just about getting through it, then you don’t want to be overstimulated. You want to be lulled into a stupor-like state so that you’re barely aware of what’s going on around you.

What you want is something to distract you long enough until you fall asleep, or fall back asleep after being jolted awake by some force (usually someone knocking into you or a baby screaming). Sleeping through as much of a flight as possible is the ultimate goal.

To get there, what you’re looking for is the medium place, trying to get as close to zen (or contented boredom) as you can get sandwiched between strangers for 15 hours straight.

So, here is my formula on what to watch on a plane.

A scene from Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.
Dumb, inoffensive and low-commitment comedies such as Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is great plane viewing. Credit: Photo Credit: Gemma LaMana/Gemma LaMana

Avoid watching for the first time a big blockbuster epic like Oppenheimer. That movie was never meant to be seen on a small screen and even the most expensive noise-cancelling headphones can’t make that audio track sound half-decent.

Take, for example, what’s on Qantas flights this month – Poor Things, The Great Escaper, The Iron Claw, Saltburn and Mean Girls.

You don’t want to watch Poor Things on a plane, unless you’ve already seen it in a cinema. The golden rule is to not watch for the first time a film known for visual pizazz, which Poor Things was.

If it’s your second or third time, have at it. But don’t let your first experience of Yorgos Lanthimos’ imaginative and discombobulating film be on a screen smaller than an iPad. It and you don’t deserve that.

The Great Escaper – a crowd-pleasing movie about a war veteran who “breaks out” of his nursing home to attend D-Day celebrations in France – is a top choice. It’s an engaging but undemanding story starring Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson.

It’s also a great example of an under-appreciated genre, the second-tier A-lister movie. These movies, which will never be listed in a superstar’s eventual obituary, are perfect for plane viewing.

Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline in The Good House.
Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline in The Good House. Credit: Lionsgate

For example, if you’re a Sigourney Weaver fan, don’t go for something that is considered part of her main canon, instead pick the movie that likely didn’t even get a cinema release.

On a flight back from London last year, I came across one called The Good House. I’d never heard of it and only didn’t scroll past it because it had Weaver and Kevin Kline. I probably wouldn’t have watched it on land, and I can barely remember what it was about now. Something to do with her being an alcoholic real estate agent?

The point is, it was entertaining enough because stars like Weaver and Kline are always interesting to watch, and I fancied the Dave co-stars’ onscreen reunion. But it’s not so interesting as to stop me from drifting off at some point during it. I’m pretty sure I also watched Weaver’s My Salinger Year on a flight the year before.

It’s like gifting. You never buy someone something they might buy themselves. You don’t watch on a plane something you’d watch at home.

The exception to that rule is a repeat viewing, especially a movie older than 30 years. If Working Girls was in the library, that would’ve been a great choice.

Go for Hollywood classics such as The French Connection, The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, The Apartment and The Sting. Things you’ve seen before with familiar contours - and vetted and approved over decades so it’s not such a gamble even if you haven’t.

Rewatch movies from your favourite franchise, ones where you know exactly what’s going to happen next. If I put on a Marvel flick, I’m guaranteed to fall asleep within the first hour.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
A familiar Marvel movie on a long-haul flight is as good as a sleeping tablet. Credit: Disney

A mid-tier rom-com is also a good shout - the likes of What’s Love Got to Do With It, The Five-Year Engagement and It Could Happen To You. Diverting but unmemorable. Or a dumb but inoffensive comedy such as Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates or Night School.

On the TV side, you might think bingeing whole seasons of some buzzy show is a good idea, but if you get too sucked into it, it’ll keep you awake the whole flight. Now is not the time for Succession.

The ideal length is three hours on any one show. More time than that and you’ll start to feel restless.

If there’s Anthony Bourdain, Stanley Tucci, Joanna Lumley or Rick Stein gallivanting around the world, join them.

Also, consider a three-part British miniseries, often a period piece. I’ve devoured but barely recall Benedict Cumberbatch in The Child in Time, Hayley Atwell in Howard’s End and Will Poulter in some Agatha Christie adaptation.

And, of course, there’s the go-tos. A handful of episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, Monk, Law & Order and its ilk. Reliable but not overwhelming.

Truly the dream.

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