How many times have you watched a plane crash on film and thought, “Is that what it’s really like?” Unless you’ve ever been in a plane crash yourself, it’s impossible to know. While some movies get it right, others don’t. This is true of other flight events as well.
For example, if you’ve ever seen a movie where the pilot hops onto the plane and, moments later, they take off, that’s not representative of real life. Pilots go through a lot of prep pre-flight in order to prevent problems and crashes. They have to check that they have enough fuel, go over logbooks, and walk through a standard pre-flight check prior to taking off.
Examining Plane Crash Scenes in Movies
Let’s go over a few plane crash scenes in movies to see which ones got it right and which ones veered toward fiction:
While the plane crash that occurs early on in Alive is fairly accurate and shocking, what is most terrifying about the film isn’t the crash itself, but where it leaves the passengers: stranded in the frigid Andes mountains. The true story of what the Uruguay rugby team went through is heartbreaking, and the conditions of the wilderness cause frostbite, gangrene, and starvation. The team is declared dead, which ceases rescue missions. While most people may think that a plane crash is the worst that could happen, the reality of where that crash could leave you is even more threatening.
Cast Away and The Grey
Both Cast Away and The Grey portray the sudden chaos of a plane crash. Bouncing cameras and flashes of moments put us right in the scene with the characters, trying to catch up and figure out what’s going on. The characters in these scenes also have to cope with the reality of what’s about to happen, and they have very little time to wrap their heads around it. Before we know it, we’ve crash-landed, stranded in an unforgiving wilderness (just like in Alive). Both films give viewers a good idea of what being in a plane crash feels like.
Final Destination is a great example of a fictionalized plane crash. The main character foresees a plane crash in his mind, then prevents some of his classmates from boarding the flight because what he imagined felt so realistic. What he envisioned plays out in horror in real life as he looks on. The scene (and the entire movie) is over-dramatized and purposely horrific — it’s a horror film, after all. While it’s terrifying to think of a crash like this one happening to you, it isn’t a realistic depiction of a crash.
Possibly one of the scariest thoughts when boarding a plane is that the pilot is unfit to fly. The movie Flight has this type of pilot in Denzel Washington’s character, Whip, who flies while on drugs and drunk, even pours his own drinks on the plane. Whip eventually gets into a crash. The idea of trusting a reckless, under-the-influence pilot is something that no passenger wants to think about — and while it’s a rare occurrence, it’s not an impossible one. According to an article in The Daily Beast, though, this isn’t something passengers should be overly concerned with because most pilots would never take such a risk, much less get away with such flagrant behavior.
The movie Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, shows the heroic efforts of Captain Sully when he landed a disabled plane on the Hudson River, saving everyone on board. While the actual flight and landing are true to real life, the movie shows Sully imagining a variety of scenarios that could have unfolded. One, in particular, has him navigating the plane between buildings in New York City, which looks notably fake. That’s the point, though — even a pilot can imagine worst-case scenarios that seem impractical.
Will the Next Plane Crash Movies Focus on Tech?
The future of plane crashes in pop culture may be of the cyber attack variety. Hijackers can now be virtual instead of physical, causing harm to a flight without even being present. By hacking a plane, an attacker could remotely take control of it while it’s in flight.
Like with other cybersecurity threats, the best defense is knowing where the system is vulnerable. Cybersecurity professionals, both in real life and represented on film, will need to know about flight-related tech and relevant threats. Keep your eyes peeled for plane crash movies that are more tech-centric than before.
How Plane Crash Movies Make Us Feel
Ultimately, plane crashes on film are often more about evoking realistic feelings than showing what an actual crash can look like. Plus, with so many different types of plane crashes that can occur, who's to say that one depicted on film could never happen in real life?
You could have experts and pilots judge the technical aspects of a crash scene, but what viewers care about is experiencing the realistic emotions a plane crash brings on. Out-of-control plane crash scenes that evoke feelings of desperation and fear are likely true to life for everyone watching, regardless of if the technical details are correct.
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