I recently read an article on Film.com about their favorite airplane movies. Their list contains eleven entries, some of which are undoubtedly shining examples of the genre:
Top Gun: arguably the greatest airplane movie ever
Airplane! Arguably the funniest airplane movie ever
However, some of the others were (at best) only tangentially related to airplanes, perhaps because they hadn’t seen enough movies that were actually about airplanes to fill up a list. In my book, a two minute crash sequence at the beginning does not an airplane movie make. Two of the most glaring examples were:
If you live by their lists, you’re missing out on some paragons of the aviation film genre, so I present to you these ten plane movies that have flown under the Film.com radar, and perhaps yours as well.
You’d be forgiven for missing this one – the trailer made it look like one of those badly scripted smash-em-ups that have been plaguing the theaters for the past few years (I’m looking at you, Transformers 2) but in my undying devotion to fighter planes I rented it anyway. I was blown away. Script? Stellar, as far as these things go. Interestingly structured and unpredictable. Action sequences: innovative. I wish I’d thought of some of the stunts they pull in this film. I won’t spoil it for you, but keep an eye out for the mid-air refueling scene. It’s my favorite. In fact, I would probably call this my favorite airplane movie of all time.
A fighter pilot finds his life being taken over by the pompous film star, who is shadowing him as research for his next role.
GENRE: Comedy/Action RELEASED: 1992 CAST: Michael Pare, Anthony Michael Hall PLANES: F-16 Fighting Falcons for the most part
Don’t confuse Into the Sun with the terrible Steven Segal movie of the same name from 2005. This one is hard to find but well worth the trouble. There are parts of the story that are implausible at best but it’s a comedy, so they’re easy to forgive. Mr. Movie Star and Mr. Fighter Pilot only narrowly avoid being stereotypes but the interactions between them are hilarious. My crippling weakness for F-16s and the fact that this film’s “bad guy” has the best aviation related t-shirt I’ve ever seen have helped Into the Sun secure a place as my second favorite flying film.
The true story of Air Canada Flight 143, which ran out of fuel enroute and was forced to glide into a disused former air base in the middle of Manitoba.
GENRE: Drama RELEASED: 1995 CAST: William Devane and some other people you’ve probably never heard of PLANES: A Boeing 767
Airliners normally aren’t my thing. They tend to be slow and fly in boring patterns. But I remember this one from when I was a kid. It’s well made for a TV movie and bends the true story very little for dramatic effect. Expect to be amazed in that Apollo 13 sort of way, where you’re just blown away by the ingenuity and/or skill of the pilots and flight crew. Hard to find on DVD, even in Canada.
In the far future, a fighter pilot must discover his connection to an exiled race of humans with navigational superpowers to help save Earth from extinction at the hands of a vicious alien race.
GENRE: Sci-Fi/Action RELEASED: 1999 CAST: Freddie Prize Jr’, Matthew Lillard, Saffron Burrows, Tcheky Karyo PLANES: Futuristic fighters called “Rapiers”
There are a lot of people who think this movie (which is based on a series of video games) is cheesy and/or terrible, but I just can’t help loving it. The mystery of the pilgrims, the names of the jump points and routes, the pilots’ attitudes toward the death of a comrade, hell even the stellar cartography graphics they use are all captivating and almost make up for the fact that Matthew Lillard’s in it and the aliens look like living rubber Halloween costumes. I suppose it technically shouldn’t count because it’s in space, but the Rapiers look like airplanes (and fly like them for the most part) so I’m counting it.
A squadron of American pilots in the French Air Force struggle with language problems, personal issues, and a particularly vicious German pilot as they fight to keep France from being overrun during World War I.
GENRE: War RELEASED: 2006 CAST: James Franco and Jean Reno, among others PLANES: various WWI era biplanes
Until I saw this movie, I hadn’t considered a dogfight between World War I biplanes to be very interesting since they were slow, clumsy, and lightly armored. However, as I learned from this movie, their very fragility is what made fighting in one so dangerous. The pistols handed out – for suicide purposes – in case of being trapped in a flaming aircraft were particularly eye opening. It could have been better – the story meanders a bit and the resolutions aren’t always satisfying – but it’s definitely worth two hours of your life, even if only for the blimp battle at the end.
It’s the summer of 1940 and the Nazis want to plow the Royal Air Force under with their bombers to open the way for an invasion. These pilots are all that stand in their way.
GENRE: War RELEASED: 1969 CAST: Pretty much every British actor who was famous in the 1960s (Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, etc) PLANES: Spitfires, Hurricanes, Stukas, etc (your standard WW2 Europe lineup)
The plot can best be described as a clusterf*** because there are so many characters, but since it all boils down to one thing (shoot down Nazis) you can never really get too lost. There’s a definite David vs. Goliath feel here and so much patriotism that it borders on propaganda, but it can be uplifting if you’re in the right mood and anyway, the aerial sequences are the real reason you should see this movie. The fighters are like swarms of angry, warring hornets, dipping, diving, shooting, and occasionally bursting into flames.
When terrorists hijack a airliner and plant an altitude sensitive bomb on board, a team of commandos and an intelligence analyst must infiltrate the plane in mid air to disarm it.
GENRE: Action RELEASED: 1996 CAST: Kurt Russell, Halle Berry PLANES: Boeing 747, F-117 Nighthawk, F-14 Eagle
I suspect Steven Segal’s name getting top billing on the poster is what kept most intelligent people from seeing this movie, but make no mistake – this is an intelligent movie (intelligent enough to get rid of Steven Segal’s character right at the beginning, anyway). It’s an action movie, so some of the stuff they try to put past us is a bit ridiculous (wait till you get a look at the inside of the bomb) but there are a lot of clever moments in this one and its worth renting just to see someone board a plane in midair.
If you’ve been soured on film parodies by movies like Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie, then congratulations, you have more than one functioning brain cell. Don’t let it put you off seeing this movie, though. Hot Shots! has a similar goofy tone, but it actually has a plot and many of the jokes are intelligent. If you’ve seen Top Gun or liked Airplane!, you’ll find this movie hilarious.
Odds are you’ve never heard of this one unless you’re confusing it with Blue Thunder, the police helicopter movie. Its British and not widely available. It’s got a bit of a Top Gun vibe at the start but quickly switches over to a “no one will believe me, but…” type UFO encounter mystery/drama. There’s the obligatory love plot and the main character is the usual maverick-with-confidence-issues type, but its definitely worth watching, as it’s probably your only chance to see an F-104 in action.
Set during the events surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, two fighter pilots doing their part for the war effort end up falling for the same woman.
GENRE: Romance/War RELEASED: 2001 CAST: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale PLANES: P-40 Warhawk, Zero, B-24 Mitchell, other WW2 Pacific Theater staples
Despite the flak this film takes for its overwrought love plot (which I didn’t actually mind that much) underneath it’s a really fantastic airplane film. It has one of those sprawling, epic plots, so it’s able to cover everything from the early days of the Army Air Forces to the Eagle Squadron in the Battle of Britain to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to the Doolittle reprisal raid. There’s endless top quality air action and a lot of insight into little known parts of the war, especially in the last hour or so, which covers the Doolittle Raid. Watch it. Just keep a bucket handy if syrupy love scenes make you want to puke.
BONUS FEATURE: A Plane Movie That Deserves to Be Shot Down
This movie has a fighter jet on the cover but make no mistake, it’s actually a spy thriller, not a plane movie. There are about 30 seconds of stock footage of Sabres in Vietnam as a dream sequence in the beginning, then no planes at all until about 20 minutes before the end. It certainly doesn’t have enough action to qualify for that genre, since the main character spends practically the entire movie running away from Russian spies on foot. They latch onto him within ten seconds of his arrival in the county (probably because he makes no effort to speak Russian or disguise his obvious American-ness). Add in Clint Eastwood’s terrible acting (my film school prof likes to refer to him as Squint Plywood) and you’ve got a huge dud.
****AN INTERESTING SIDE NOTE****
Many of the above movies have the incorrect type of plane on their posters/box art. Into the Sun has F-15s when there should be F-16s, Flight 174‘s box art looks more like a 747-400 that’s missing an engine on one side than a 767, Hot Shots! has an F-18 on the cover when there are none in the movie, and that plane on the poster for Blue Tornado isn’t a Tornado or an F-104: it’s an F-14.
If you like plane movies, you might also like my article on the best movie PILOTS. Click here to read it.