Everybody has a different opinion about the best way to watch a film. Some people seek out the biggest possible screen and trek to the nearest IMAX theater to catch Dunkirk in 70mm. Others prefer the comfort of a home-viewing experience, and when you have a top-of-the-line OLED television in your living room, who’d blame you for popping in that Blu-ray? Personally, I’m a stickler for fidelity: I look for a theater with crystal-clear sound, and if you invite me over to your place to watch a movie, you’d better know that your new TV’s motion-smoothing setting is a deal-breaker. There’s a way that a film is meant to be seen, and that ain’t it.
And yet, my preferred way of watching a movie ignores all of these self-imposed parameters. Hell, it ignores all rational logic! The visual presentation is compromised, the sound is forsaken entirely, and yet I find this viewing method irresistible. Send help: I cannot get enough of watching someone else’s movie on an airplane.
I’m not talking about watching a movie on my own monitor, and I’m not pining for those rare, antiquated times when the entire cabin had to watch the same film. No, my weirdo fixation is on whatever movie the dude next to me just selected on his monitor, or even better, what the lady one row ahead is already in the middle of viewing. Why would I bother to concentrate on my own piddly in-flight film when the hulking dude in seat 20C is watching Bridget Jones’s Baby? Even a bad movie becomes kind of good if you watch it over someone’s shoulder.
Time and time again, I’ve tried not to be such a weird eavesdropper, but I just can’t help myself. When you can’t tell what the characters are saying in someone else’s movie, it creates a curiosity gap that’s so much more enticing than simply firing up that movie to watch it yourself. One of my favorite in-flight films is the Cameron Diaz comedy The Other Woman, which I have watched someone else watch at least four times without ever once hearing a lick of dialogue. I understand only the bare minimum of the revenge plot that Diaz and Leslie Mann concoct against their shared, no-good ex, but maybe it’s better that way: With my imagination stirred and just enough lost in translation, The Other Woman plays like a fascinating foreign film made with Hollywood production values. Is the movie funny? Why is Nicki Minaj there? Can Kate Upton actually act? I don’t know the answers to those questions and to be honest with you, I don’t really care. As soon as somebody one row up puts on The Other Woman, I’m ready to flag the stewardess down for popcorn.
Watching a movie in this way can also give me a newfound appreciation for something I’ve already seen. I’m a big fan of the Best Picture winner Spotlight, though I never really understood how Rachel McAdams managed a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her competent, unshowy work in the film. When I watched someone else watch Spotlight on a plane, however, I was blown away by the performance McAdams gave in the scene where she confronts a priest who confesses all too readily to awful crimes. Watch it again with the sound off: As her character tries to keep it together and press further despite her clear astonishment, the competing emotions that flicker on McAdams’s face had me evaluating her in a whole new light. It’s marvelous work, and watching someone else’s in-flight film really makes you appreciate movie stars all the more: When you’ve got little besides these faces to orient you, it helps to have damn good ones to stare at.
I thought maybe I was the only oddball who watches movies this way, but when I spoke to Baby Driver director Edgar Wright last week just before he was about to board a long flight to Beijing, the subject came up and he laughed. “I know exactly what you mean, and I do that, too!” he said. “Here’s an interesting thing: People say that when a film has great visual storytelling, you can follow it with the sound turned off. Sometimes I do exactly that when I watch a film over somebody’s shoulder, or even when they have the film on in the middle of the aisle and you have to put the headphones on to watch it. I don’t put the headphones on but I can completely follow the movie.”
And when a movie works on that level, it really works. The Force Awakens pays homage to other Star Wars movie but doesn’t offer the same instantly iconic lines, and the plotting and motivations are often needlessly convoluted. Still, when I watch people watch the film on an airplane, there’s no denying that perfectly shot and edited third-act sequence where Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tries to summon a lightsaber his way, only for it to fly past him and land in the outstretched grip of Force-wielding Rey (Daisy Ridley). Shorn of its John Williams score, the sequence still slays, and it’s a reminder to filmmakers that when you can boil something down to its barest visual essence and still convey everything the viewer needs to know, you’re really cooking.
So recently, when I saw the Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde in theaters and found myself losing track of all the double and triple crosses that make up its plot, I resolved to treat it like I would someone else’s airplane movie and let go of what didn’t matter. Sure, if I were to watch another passenger watch it at 39,000 feet, I’d be losing that distinctive 1980s soundtrack and Theron’s perfectly purred expletives, but the film’s high style and incredible fight sequences would stand out all the more. Because of that, I’ve found myself anticipating an airplane rewatch of Atomic Blonde this fall almost as much as I’m looking forward to the next theatrical releases from Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Spielberg. Yes, I’ve already seen the movie once, but I haven’t really seen it until I’ve watched you see it.