There's something fundamentally American about sitting in a chair and watching a movie in the back of another chair. It's like eating chowder out of a bread bowl.
But recently, numerous airlines like Alaska and United have been gradually phasing out seat-back screens on short-haul flights and instructing passengers to watch the content on their smartphones. Why? Because the screens are expensive, add weight and bulk to the interior, and they figure that since you have a smartphone, you might as well drain your battery and watch Taken 3 there instead.
Eliminating screens from seat backs is totally the right move. They should be relocated to the ceiling and all play the same movie at the same time, like in the old days. (No, I don't own a flip phone.)
Every time I try to view a movie on a flight, I find myself watching other passengers' movies instead of my own, as if they know something that I don't. This seems to be an issue for others, too, because I catch them looking at mine as well.
When you rewatch Avengers: Infinity War for the eighth time, you notice through the spaces between seats that the guy in front of you is taking in Geostorm for some reason, and two seats away, You, Me and Dupree is playing, until suddenly, your periphery is filled with a sea of films from every genre, all distracting from the one playing a few inches from your face.
The plane inadvertently becomes a snack mix bag of movies, in which you find yourself following several plot lines at the same time and merging them into one incoherent story. Once on a flight, The Devil Wears Prada, Pacific Rim, and The Upside were playing all around me. When a friend later asked what I watched on the plane, I said, “I saw a movie about a kaiju that gets a job at a fashion magazine and then forms an unlikely friendship with Kevin Hart after becoming a quadriplegic. At least I think that's what it was about.”
What fun it was to walk onto a flight and cheerfully ask the stewardess, "What's the inflight movie today?" Sometimes I even tried to book flights based on what film they were showing. "Legally Blonde? I've already seen that. What's playing on the 9:30 p.m. departure?"
It all makes me a tad nostalgic for the time when everyone had to watch the same film. The screens would unfurl from the ceiling as the stewardess announced that today's inflight movie is Space Jam (it was always Space Jam), and everyone would laugh and cry as one in a mini movie theater traveling at 575 miles per hour. The lack of choice and condensed space inadvertently fostered a sense of community.
There were obviously way fewer screens, and if one of them happened to distract your attention away from the screen near you, it was conveniently showing the same movie, kind of like the wall of televisions at a Best Buy. Space Jam was to the left of you and the right of you and behind. That may sound like one of Dante's circles of hell, but I liked it.
What fun it was to walk onto a flight and cheerfully ask the stewardess, “What's the inflight movie today?” Sometimes I even tried to book flights based on what film they were showing. “ Legally Blonde? I've already seen that. What's playing on the 9:30 p.m. departure?”
Granted, inflight movies have understandably never had a great reputation. The first inflight entertainment that everybody had to watch was a promotional film called Howdy Chicago, shown in 1921 on Aeromarine Airways. No sequels were made, and you can't find it on Netflix or anything. Actual Hollywood movies didn't reach planes until 1925, when The Lost World screened on an Imperial Airways flight between London and Paris. That was also probably the first instance of an airline passenger annoyingly saying, “The book is better.”
Part of the issue was finding movies that could keep all ages and tastes of passengers pacified (aka quiet) for the duration of the flight.
“In the 1960s, TWA chose films that were approved by both Parents magazine and the Catholic Legion of Decency. But somehow two harrowing films— The Birds and Tomorrow at Ten (about a kidnapping)—were approved and exhibited on planes’ large screens,” says Stephen Groening, author of an apt book to read on your next flight, Cinema Beyond Territory: Inflight Entertainment in Global Context.
“This led to censoring films and making special editions just for airlines, but that also meant many films were cut up and uninteresting because they became essentially children’s films.”
Passengers eventually got tired of being forced to watch movies like The Mighty Ducks or edited versions of Titanic where the ship doesn't go down, and so most airlines completed the switchover to individualized choice by the early 2000s.
Today, with different movies screening in every seat back and phone, it all becomes too much to think about when you're just trying to avoid processing the reality that you're in a flimsy vessel 30,000 feet in the air. Short of somehow purchasing my own airline, it's unlikely that the one-film system will ever return.
But I've been trying something new of late. At the beginning of the flight, I try to convince everyone in my section to watch the same film as me at the exact same time so none of us is distracted by the other’s movie. It hasn't been going over that well.
“Wait! Don't press play yet, I have to go to the bathroom.”