This week on the SBS VICELAND series Seconds From Disaster, a couple of the episodes focus on specific plane crashes - how and why they happened. And while we're certainly obsessed with them in real life, there is also a deep fascination with watching them unfold in fictional movies.
To find out why, we examined some of the scariest plane crashes onscreen...
It’s easy to forget that Robert Zemeckis’ brilliant Tom Hanks vehicle, Cast Away (2000), isn’t only about a marooned FedEx employee and his anthropomorphised volleyball. It also includes one of the most harrowing plane crashes ever put to film. Unlike most other disastrous plane scenes, there’s no build up in tension, no creeping warning sign or worsening malfunction. It’s a scene that taps into our worst fears when it comes to plane crashes – one that begins and ends before your life has had a chance to flash before your eyes.
While Hanks’ Chuck Noland uses the freight plane’s lavatory, his entire body is sucked into the air. As the plane shakes and shatters and screeches and beeps, a pilot yells something about an explosion and another about having to ditch. A gas mask is affixed to Chuck’s face as he straps into a seat, giving him barely enough time to retrieve a fallen fob-watch containing a picture of his wife, before watching through the cockpit glass as he and the plane plummet into the ocean.
This all happens in less than a minute. There’s no escape for Chuck, and by proxy, no escape for us. Our universal fear of failed flight is on display, as is the unimaginable nightmare that death might be seconds away and nobody you love is anywhere to be seen.
It’s no surprise, then, that the inescapable malfunctioning plane is the perfect space for an action film. Add a group of villains to the fact that slipping out the nearest exit requires a 35,000-foot free fall, and you’ve got a locked-room location where death looms in every direction. Films like Air Force One (1997), Passenger 57 (1992), Non-Stop (2014) and Con Air (1997) all capatalise on the fact that nobody can come knocking and protect the innocent or curb the carnage. If a hero is going to save the day, they’re going to have to be on that plane.
What Cast Away and many of these plane-set films usually don’t communicate is the power of denial. Almost every character in every scene from every film featuring a nose-diving plane are aware that the plane will crash. The Grey (2011), The Aviator (2004), Alive (1993) and every other film mentioned in this article have no doubt in their minds that they’re going down. In reality, the opposite mindset is far more commonplace.
In the Guardian‘s powerful series of accounts from plane crash survivors, nearly every person claimed that in the moment, they were sure the situation would be under control. “I still didn't think we were going to die,” says Upton Rehnberg, survivor of United Airlines flight 232 in 1989. “I assumed they would be able to get the aeroplane down. It was quiet. I remember taking off my tie - I don't know why. I put my reading glasses in my shirt pocket, tied my shoelaces and waited.”
Mercedes Ramirez Johnson, who survived American Airlines flight 965 in 1995, also thought the plane would right itself. “I was next to my father, in the exit row over the wing, but I remember hearing my mother praying,” she says. “Her voice calmed me down. I didn't think we were going to crash or die. I just kept thinking, "Hurry up and fix this. Straighten it out."
These stories of denial are partly instinctual aversions to the idea of such a tremendous tragedy taking hold, but they also demonstrate our confidence in both the statistical unlikelihood of a crash, and in the skill and experience of the (almost deified) commercial pilot.
When it comes to the latter, two films from this decade mine the concept for all its worth. Robert Zemeckis’ Flight (2013) and especially Clint Eastwood’s true story Sully (2016) are testaments to our unshakable faith in commercial airline pilots. Both these stories take us inside the cockpit and underline the man-made aspects of man-made flight – idealistically asserting that no technological malfunction is any match for a veteran airman.
Sully – which tells the story of the now famous emergency landing of a commercial plane in the middle of New York’s Hudson River - reenacts how the powers-that-be want to prove that even though everyone on that plane survived, Sully was still somehow at fault. They commission simulations that allegedly prove he could have easily diverted the doomed plane to a nearby airstrip. In the end, it’s Sully himself that proves them wrong – arguing that no simulation has taken into account the human factor – the response time it takes to negotiate a crisis before making such a decision.
In Flight, Denzel Washington plays a similarly prodigious pilot, who, after losing all engine control, flips the plane upside down and then into a glide, saving all but six people in the process. But his life is in shambles and he was deeply hung over when he pulled off that landing. Yet the film remains a study in what is possible when a person is faced with fatal catastrophe – as well as an acknowledgement of just how much faith we have to put in our commercial airline pilots.
But there is one plane-set film that stands above the rest – Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006). You don’t have to be a 9/11 expert or a conspiracy theorist to appreciate this unrelenting masterclass in airborne tension. The thriller takes what would usually play out in a single scene in any of the previously mentioned films and stretches it out over 110 grueling minutes.
What’s so fascinating about United 93 is that it makes the audience feel like passengers on a doomed flight in a way that no film has ever before. The cast is made up of non-actors who could be your mother, your best friend, your colleague, or you. You’re there during the initial confusion over the nature of the problem. You’re there during the slow realisation that the plane is being hijacked and the even slower realisation that it’s merely one of many. You’re there during desperate mobile phone calls to loved ones, and when passengers pool their spirits to fight back until the end. Just as Flight and Sully believe in the power and ingenuity of a single human spirit, United 93 does the same with the collective.
All in all, our fascination with onscreen plane disasters is less about the disasters themselves - a voyeuristic urge to watch a living nightmare. It’s more about how these disasters strip us of life’s meanderings and force our awareness squarely onto the core of being. When you put the visceral thrill aside, there’s a bright light cast upon our sense of gratitude. In a way, we’ve survived.
Seconds from Disaster airs Saturday at 4:50pm on SBS VICELAND.