The awkwardness of choosing the wrong in-flight movie


NB: The following contains a mild spoiler for Toni Erdmann and descriptions of saucy film moments.

To date, science has yet to bring us matter transporters or suspended animation, but things have moved on considerably when it comes to in-flight entertainment. Once upon a time, watching a movie on a plane meant squinting at a screen a few rows away as a heavily-edited version of a six-month old film played.

Today, most planes come with a little flat screen mounted on the seat in front of you; with a press of a few unresponsive buttons, you can choose from a range of movies, TV episodes or albums by Adele, Rod Stewart and Maroon Five.

We wrote about the strange phenomenon of watching movies on planes a few years ago, and one point we highlighted still stands: “it’s almost the only place where what you watch can have an impact on other passengers.” Whether you’re watching Disney’s Moana on a seatback flat screen or you’re watching an episode of Only Fools And Horses downloaded onto your iPad, there’s the constant possibility that someone will look over your shoulder to see what you’ve chosen as your time-killer.

I know this because I often take a look around to see what other plane passengers are watching. Have they gone for the latest blockbuster, or an old episode of Top Gear? Are they listening to Toploader, or have the opted to spend a few hours playing Angry Birds while supping complimentary orange juice? The problem with this nosiness is that it also creates a certain amount of paranoia. What if the passengers behind me are looking at my film and TV choices and quietly judging me for my dreadful taste? Or, worse still, what if I’ve chosen something too violent or sordid, and they think I’m some kind of serial killer in the making?

If you’re of this mindset, as I clearly am, choosing the right bit of entertainment is key. The problem is, I’m terrible at choosing the right bit of entertainment.

Many years ago, I was on a transatlantic flight and randomly selected an indie thriller, The Disappearance Of Alice Creed. What I didn’t realise was that the movie is mostly about a screaming Gemma Arterton being kidnapped, tied up, disrobed, and occasionally going to the loo in a bucket. The more Arterton screamed, the more I worried that the person sitting next to me on the flight would hear the anguish through my headphones, look over, and wonder why I was watching something so horrendously kinky. 

My terrible entertainment choices have persisted on other journeys. I recently watched the pilot episode of Westworld without realising just how full of nudity and bloodshed it was. On another occasion, I sat between two very well-to-do and sweet-natured older ladies, and foolishly chose the indie darling Toni Erdmann to kill a few hours. All seemed fairly harmless at first, until I arrived at a scene where a profoundly naked man starts disporting himself onto selection of canapés.

Cringing at the thought of either lady seeing this, I jabbed away at the unresponsive touch-screen in a vain attempt to turn the movie off. My insistent prodding quickly backfired, and one of the ladies craned her neck to see what I was doing – it’s possible she thought I was just pointing excitedly at the screen.

No sooner had the lady looked over than one of the characters in the film, Ines (Sandra Huller) had gamely picked up one of the canapés and eaten it as the naked man looked on. Now, I can’t know that the lady sitting next to me actually saw what was happening on the screen; all I know is that she looked from the screen and then to me with a decidedly quizzical look on her face.

For some reason, I found myself shrugging and holding my palms up as if to say, “Tut! Kids these days.” 

Once I’d finally turned Toni Erdmann off in a panic, I decided to choose something a bit more middle-of-the-road. Ah, I thought, stumbling on the American comedy Why Him?, starring Bryan Cranston and James Franco – there’s a film that’s bound to be blandly inoffensive.

I then discovered that one of the earliest scenes features James Franco waving his naked backside around during a Skype chat. I let out a strangled noise that was meant to represent frustration, and started trying to turn this movie off, too. What the lady sitting next to me wound up seeing was a guy groaning and pointing repeatedly at James Franco’s unclad bottom.

If there’s a moral to this story at all, it’s not that you should avoid certain movies on planes. Rather, you should watch whatever you like and do your best not to be as paranoid as I am. My advice? Put Toni Erdmann on, drink your complimentary orange juice, and try not to make eye contact with any of your fellow passengers.



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