The physics of flight, ailerons, airfoils, turbo engines, blah blah blah ... to my way of thinking, airplanes are still giant chunks of metal weighing many tons that, by all logic, should not be able to defy gravity. And obviously, I'm not alone. Fear of flying is deep-seated, wide-spread and has been mined many times by Hollywood. Wes Craven's "Red Eye" (starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy) and the upcoming Jodie Foster missing-child-in-midair thriller, "Flightplan," are just the latest in a long line of movies unlikely to be chosen as in-flight entertainment.
The first dramatic depiction of a plane crash in film was probably Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 espionage drama, "Foreign Correspondent." The climax features Nazis forcing a plane to make what they oxymoronically call an "ocean landing." We see over the pilots' shoulders as they dive towards the sea, then actual water floods through the rear projection screen and the windshield -- a simple yet amazingly effective effect that thrilled and terrified audiences at the time.
But that was a rarity in those primitive F/X days. Most films, right through the '60s, failed to convey the massive destruction of a plane crash. In the era of the Disaster Movie, however, things changed.
The word "franchise" still applied mostly to fast food chains rather than films in the 1970s, but the "Airport" series certainly fit the bill. While the first "Airport" in 1970 does feature a bomber on a plane, that movie's more of a soap opera than a thriller. The first sequel, "Airport 1975," amps up the terror by having a small plane collide with a 747, leaving it sans pilots. So stewardess Karen Black takes the yoke, the gaping hole in the cockpit somehow merely causing a bothersome chill. Ultimate over-actor Charlton Heston saves the day by dropping through the hole and bringing the plane to a safe landing. No, it's not a comedy, but "Airport 1975" did serve as the primary inspiration for the 1980 parody, "Airplane!" thus launching the entire joke-a-minute movie spoof genre. "Airport '77," meanwhile, spends most of its time with a downed jet submerged underwater -- a kind of "Poseidon Adventure" set in a plane.
Most of the time, our fears of flying are based on realistic potential for a mechanical failure or grisly act of nature. But in our crazier moments, we might worry about, oh, gremlins on the wing. Such was the case in "Twilight Zone: the Movie" (1983), where a panicked passenger (John Lithgow) cannot convince anyone else on board that a little green monster is trying to destroy one of the engines. The giddy balance of terror and humor -- "You big silly!," the girl in the seat in front of Lithgow squeals. "You used to be a normal person once!" -- captures the feelings of millions of passengers who never fully get used to air travel.
Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) finds himself battling mercenary terrorists at Washington DC's Dulles Airport in 1990's "Die Hard 2." The Renny Harlin-helmed action flick is a lot of fun, but it does contain some elements that are hard to buy: You have the cliché of the hero never getting hit by thousands of rounds of machine gun ammo fired by trained commandos; a huge, fiery plane crash that goes unnoticed by everyone at the airport; and an old lady allowed to carry a Taser on her flight. It's hard to imagine that this bloodbath of a movie would be considered "quaint," but times -- and airport security -- have changed a lot in fifteen years.
In 1972, a small plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes mountains, where the survivors were eventually forced to cannibalize their dead friends in order to live. The 1993 movie "Alive" brutally (but not exploitatively) depicts their agonizing 72-day ordeal. The viewer can practically feel the freezing cold, the claustrophobia of the snow-packed fuselage, the angst of being forced by hunger to eat human flesh. But the crash scene remains the most shocking part of the film. At one point, the entire tail section is ripped off as the remaining passengers sit, frozen in fear, clinging to their chairs (as did audience members) as the carcass of the plane tears through the frozen mountains.
Many films set on an airplane fall into the stereotypical "Hijacker kills pilot; flight attendant and/or passenger saves the day" plot that took hold with 1992's "Passenger 57" starring Wesley Snipes. The genre continued with the "Turbulence" B-movie series that started in 1997 as well as that same year's truly ludicrous "Air Force One," featuring Harrison Ford as a terrorist-ass-kickin' president who don't need no stinkin' Secret Service!
Brushes with death, whether through disease or accident, almost always force one to re-examine his or her own life. A renewed zest for living often takes place, roses are smelled, etc. But it can also spawn a spiritual crisis that leaves one questioning the very reason for existence. In the 1993 film, "Fearless," Jeff Bridges plays Max Klein, a man whose entire way of thinking and feeling is changed when he survives a plane crash. It's one of the few films to deal extensively with the emotional aftermath of such an awful experience.
Harrowing plane crashes also figure prominently in "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965 and a 2004 remake), "Sweet Dreams" (1985), "Hero" (1992), "Con Air" (1997), "The English Patient" (1996), "Fight Club" (1999) and last year's Howard Hughes biopic, "The Aviator." The year 2000 was a bad one for moviegoers with fear of flying, with "Mission: Impossible II", "Final Destination" and "Cast Away" all depicting nasty airline accidents. Even 2004's Disney/Pixar film, "The Incredibles," contains a pretty scary airplane explosion, making it improbable mini-DVD fodder to keep the young'uns occupied on a trans-oceanic flight.
When autistic savant Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) spouts airline statistics in "Rain Man" (1988) he notes that Australia's Qantas is the only major carrier to never have a crash. Guess which airline was the only one to leave that scene intact when it showed the film on its planes.
For many of us who fly on a regular basis, there's almost always at least a tiny bit of trepidation. Ironically, with all of us (frequent flyers or no) carrying vivid images of September 11th, it's become less acceptable for Hollywood to exploit such a tragedy, even as we possess a collective perspective on the matter that's no longer objective. When Oliver Stone's upcoming 9/11 film is made, what can he possibly do to match the horror we felt watching real life terror unfold -- a horror that was described over and over by almost everyone who saw it (even those who witnessed it first-hand, as opposed to on TV) as looking "just like a movie."
Do movies like "Red Eye" inure us to a fear of flying, or exacerbate it? It's different for everyone, of course, but personally, I'd rather read "Jaws" on the beach than sit on an airplane and watch Tom Hanks' FedEx carrier get hit by lightning. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I hear the train conductor calling ...
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