I enjoy movies that take place in a confined area such as a boat, a train, an Artic outpost, or an airplane. The space constraint forces writers, directors, and actors to be clever and creative.
Although many movies have a few scenes that take place on an airplane, there aren’t all that many movies where the majority of the story takes place inside a plane. Here are my 10 favorites.
1. Air Force One (1997) – Gary Oldman plays a Russian terrorist who hijacks the U.S. President’s (Harrison Ford) Air Force One jet. Excellent combination of plot twists, action, and acting. I’ll bet you’ve seen at least parts of this movie several times on TV. The catch-phrase scene is, “Get off my plane!”
2. Red Eye (2005) – A young hotel manager woman (played by actress Rachel McAdams) who is travelling from Dallas to Miami accidentally meets a man (Cillian Murphy) in an airport. After she boards the plane, she finds that he is seated right next to her. What a coincidence! Or is it? There’s an assassination plot afoot, and a lot of tension as McAdams’ cell phone battery is on the verge of dying.
3. Non-Stop (2014) – When will criminals learn not to mess around with Liam Neeson? Neeson plays a sky marshal on a flight from New York to London. In mid-flight he receives a text message on his special secure phone that says a passenger will die every 20 minutes until a ransom of $150 is paid. People start dying but everyone thinks Neeson is part of the scheme. Who among the many passengers and crew is behind the plot?
4. Executive Decision (1996) – This movie came out a year before “Air Force One” and I sometimes get the plots of the two somewhat similar films confused. In this movie, terrorists hijack a flight from Greece to Washington, DC to force the release of a jailed terrorist leader. A DARPA engineer, played by Kurt Russell, and a team of commandos, sneak on board the flight using a modified F-117 stealth jet. Halle Berry plays a flight attendant.
5. Flightplan (2005) – Jodie foster plays a woman who boards a jumbo jet in Berlin with her young daughter, to take the body of her husband (who died mysteriously) to the United States. Shortly after boarding, the daughter disappears and everyone on the plane says the daughter never existed. Is Foster going insane? Or is there a sinister conspiracy of some kind?
6. Airport (1970) – A suicidal man boards a Boeing 707 jet flying out of Chicago. This movie, taking place in the very early days of commercial jet travel, had a lot of very well-known actors including Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin (a pilot), Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Van Heflin, and Lloyd Nolan. The film was a huge success and spawned three sequels and many disaster movies in the 1970s, such as “The Poseidon Adventure”, “The Towering Inferno”, and “Earthquake”.
7. The High and the Mighty (1954) – This movie isn’t as well-known as the others on my list, but it was perhaps the first on-a-plane movie with a big budget and a major star. John Wayne is the pilot of DC-4 passenger plane flying from Honolulu to San Francisco. An engine failure and fuel loss occur at the worst possible point in the flight. Will the plane make it safely to San Francisco? I suspect this film, based on the 1953 novel of the same name, was the direct inspiration for “Airport” (1970).
8. Memphis Belle (1990) – The movie takes place on board a World War II B-17 plane in a bombing raid over Nazi Germany. A very exciting film. My favorite performances are by actors Billy Zane (the bombardier), and Courtney Gains (the right waist gunner). I’m always stunned when I think of the unbelievable bravery and courage of the men who fought in WWII.
9. Airport 1975 (1974) – This is the first sequel to “Airport” (1970) and unlike many movie sequels, is very good. A Boeing 747 jumbo jet is flying from Washington DC to Los Angeles when a small private plane crashes into the 747’s cockpit, killing the first officer (Roy Thinnes) and the flight engineer (Erik Estrada), and rendering the pilot (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) blind and unconscious. Charlton Heston manages to get on board the jet while in flight, by being lowered by a fast helicopter.
10. Sky Dragon (1949) – On a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, all passengers, including Charlie Chan (played by Roland Winters) and his son Lee (Keye Luke) are mysteriously rendered unconscious. When everyone wakes up, they find that $250,000 is missing from a courier. Will the two Chans solve the mystery? This was the last of the Chan series.
The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973) – This is a made-for-TV film and it really made an impression on me the one time I saw it. Demonic forces are on board a Boeing 747 flight from London to New York. Stars included Chuck Connors as the pilot, Buddy Ebsen, France Nuyen, William Shatner as an ex-priest who tries to defeat the evil using religion. Bad idea.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1959) – This is one of the best-known (and in my opinion, best stories) of the old Twilight Zone TV series. William Shatner plays a character just released from a sanitarium who is on a passenger flight on a dark and stormy night. He thinks he sees a creature on the plane’s wing . . .
Snakes on a Plane (2006) – Do you really need an explanation?
Airplane! (1980) – Many movie critics and movie fans consider this one of the best film comedies of all time. It certainly does have some hilarious moments, and influenced the film comedy genre ever since.