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12 Turbulent Airplane Thrillers to Stream Right Now

Photo: Vulture;Photos: Everette, Apple TV, Dreamworks

Airplanes are spaces where we sort of can’t help but be vulnerable. It’s cramped, you can’t simply “pull over” and get out any time you want, and you have to smell whatever foods your fellow passengers brought onboard with them whether you like it or not. So it’s no wonder that this particular space has become a creative playground for thriller storytellers.

Hijack, the Apple TV+ drama starring Idris Elba, is the latest in a long line of thrillers set on airplanes, and after seven riveting episodes, it’s coming to an end this week. So just in case you’re in the mood to take another flight from the comfort of your couch, we’ve rounded up a dozen of the best airplane thrillers — that is, thrillers primarily set on airplanes, not thrillers that feature an airplane — for your viewing pleasure. Movies or shows about plane crashes don’t qualify (sorry, Lost, Yellowjackets, Flight, and Sully), and there’s a big difference between action on a passenger plane and action in the cockpit of a military jet (so no Top Gun: Maverick).

Now, sit back, relax, and pay attention to the seatbelt sign because these are some bumpy rides.

Airport ’77 (1977)

The Airport films have long been credited with popularizing the disaster movie genre, but their influence also helped to establish the airplane thriller as a subgenre all its own. If you want pure, unfiltered, airplane-centric insanity, though, your best bet in the franchise is Airport ’77. The third installment packs yet another cast of major stars (Jack Lemmon with a mustache! Darren McGavin growling his way through the flight! Olivia de Havilland in all her glory!) into a luxury airliner, only to bring that airliner crashing down in the Bermuda Triangle … underwater. That’s right, this is a film brave enough to ask the question “What if a plane was a submarine?” and while it doesn’t necessarily go well for the passengers, you’ll have a lot of fun watching water trickle through the ’70s-ass airplane carpet.

Available to stream on Netflix

Passenger 57 (1992)

One of several “Die Hard on a Plane” movies to crop up in the 1990s, Passenger 57 is also one of the films that helped make Wesley Snipes an action star. Looking back, it’s easy to see why. If you love bombastic action cinema, this movie has everything: a soundtrack that’s mostly bass solos, early ’90s Elizabeth Hurley whipping her hair around, Wesley Snipes one-liners like “Always bet on Black,” and Bruce Payne playing a terrorist in a performance so wonderfully cartoonish it makes Disney villains look positively understated. At one point, Snipes’s airline-security expert, trying to stop a hijacking mid-flight, finds a leather jacket in the cargo hold and puts it on just because he can. It’s that kind of movie, and it’s great.

Executive Decision (1996)

I’m convinced that Executive Decision got its name simply so a character could offer a resigned sigh at one point in the film and say, “It’s an executive decision now.” The executive in question is the president, but he’s an offscreen presence for most of the film. The real man in charge is Kurt Russell, a tuxedo-clad intelligence analyst who gets roped into a counterterrorist operation by a grudge-holding colonel (Steven Seagal as a man named “Austin Travis” who, against all odds, doesn’t seem to be from Texas). The operation in question: Get onboard a hijacked plane via an experimental technology that allows them to “dock” with the plane and tunnel onto it in midair. When Seagal’s typical action-hero character can’t complete the mission, it’s up to Russell to play the reluctant hero, all while looking good in a tux and a pair of glasses. That’s right, it’s Kurt Russell doing “Nerd Who’s Secretly Good at Punching,” and that’s as fun as it sounds.

Con Air (1997)

If you knew nothing else about Con Air, and I told you John Malkovich plays a criminal mastermind named “Cyrus the Virus,” you’d definitely want to watch it, right? Good, because that’s only, like, the fourth or fifth most awesome thing about this movie, which features a bunch of convicts hijacking the airplane they’re being transported on The rest of the ensemble cast includes Nicolas Cage (with one of his sweetest accents) as a man who killed someone in self-defense and just wants to get home to his family, Steve Buscemi as a serial killer, John Cusack as the federal marshal just trying to keep this whole planeload of felons in check, and Ving Rhames as a dude named “Diamond Dog” (let him into the group, Coach Lasso). Plus there’s power-ballad queen Diane Warren’s “How Do I Live?,” a stuffed animal in constant peril, and of course the action, which all culminates in a chase down the Las Vegas strip and a literal rain of money. All that and Cyrus the Virus, too.

Air Force One (1997)

Ah yes, what if “Die Hard on a Plane” was “Die Hard on the President’s Plane“? Directed with style and bravado by Wolfgang Peterson, who even manages to make some questionable CGI work out okay, Air Force One is one of those great Harrison Ford vehicles that’s comfortable just because you know he’s going to get the job done eventually, no matter how far he has to go. Opposite him in the battle for the commander-in-chief’s ride is Gary Oldman as a Russian separatist trying to get his leader released from prison, which means you get Gary Oldman shouting and Gary Oldman doing a very pronounced accent. Throw in Glenn Close holding down the fort as one of the best vice-presidents ever committed to film, and you can already taste the popcorn.

Red Eye (2005)

Though he’s best known for films dominated by Freddy Krueger’s claws and Ghostface’s hunting knife, Wes Craven should also be remembered as a meticulous cinema craftsman who could ratchet up tension even without the trappings of horror. For proof, check out Red Eye, a nail-biting masterpiece about a hotel manager (Rachel McAdams) and the terrorist (Cillian Murphy) who ropes her into his deadly plans in the middle of a quiet night flight. McAdams and Murphy both make absolute meals of the premise, and Craven proves he can play Hitchcock with the best of them. Plus, unlike a lot of movies on this list, which make planes feel like flying open-concept living rooms, Red Eye really traps you in the close quarters that come with coach seating. You can basically smell the dirty socks of the person with their feet up on your armrest, and believe it or not, for this movie, that’s a good thing.

Available to stream on Paramount+

Flightplan (2005)

For much of its runtime, Flightplan is a movie about a panicked widow whose daughter has gone missing in the middle of a nighttime flight, which means Jodie Foster has to spend a lot of it running back and forth on a jetliner, trying to sustain the tension of whether or not her daughter was real or a trauma-wrought hallucination. With another actor, it might not work, but damn it, this is two-time Oscar-winner Jodie Foster. When she says her daughter is missing, her daughter is missing, and you will follow her into hell to find out what happened. That’s reason enough to watch this movie. The bonkers back half of the plot is just icing on the Jodie Foster cake.

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

Remember that old Patton Oswalt bit about how the title Texas Chain Saw Massacre makes you see a free movie in your head? The same rules apply to Snakes on a Plane, a movie about a plane that … well, has snakes on it. You get it. Of course you get it; you get it so much you’re wondering if this movie is even worth watching, if it can ever possibly live up to the promise of the title. But trust me, Samuel L. Jackson yelling at airborne serpents for 100 minutes really is as fun as it sounds. This is glorious Meme Movie Cheese from before meme movies were really a thing, and the horror is effective enough that you’ll be double-checking the overhead bins for reptiles on your next flight.

Available to stream on Max

Non-Stop (2014)

The Liam Neeson Grizzled Action Hero Pipeline has not stopped flowing since Taken hit big, but if you’re looking for some gems beyond the Taken-verse (and of course The Grey, the Neeson-versus-wolves showdown of our dreams), Non-Stop is a good place to start. The film stars Neeson as an alcoholic, divorced, bitter air marshal still mourning his dead daughter, trapped on a plane with a killer who promises to off a passenger every 20 minutes until his demands are met. It’s a slick concept, Neeson carries it well, and director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps the tension mounting while managing to comment in surprisingly insightful ways on the nature of post-9/11 air travel paranoia. It’s even Key & Peele-approved.

Available to stream on Netflix

Blood Red Sky (2021)

Okay, you might be going into Blood Red Sky — the film that dares to ask, “What if ‘Die Hard on a Plane’ was interrupted by a vampire?” — expecting some kind of over-the-top action film or even a horror-comedy. I’m here to tell you right now that’s not the case, so manage your expectations. If you approach with an open mind and an eye for thoughtful horror, what you’ll get from this film is a surprisingly moving, often viscerally creepy journey about a mother and son just trying to survive in an unkind world. Of course, you’ll also get a vampire ripping into hijackers in some very satisfying ways, so I guess don’t manage your expectations too much.

Available to stream on Netflix

Plane (2023)

Despite the title, Plane actually spends much of its runtime outside of the plane in the island jungle around the plane, but we’re counting it anyway because … well, it’s called Plane, it’s got a Plane, and it’s got Gerard Butler reminding us that he is now in his Liam Neeson era. Butler plays a determined pilot — in the parlance of the Barbie era, his job is Plane — who must team up with a convicted murderer (Mike Colter) who just happened to be one of his passengers after Plane goes down in the jungle, surrounded by criminals who’d love to ransom off the American passengers. Granted, the film spends too much time away from Plane, but when it finally gets back to Plane, Plane gears up for a really fun finish, complete with an unforgettable death for the film’s main villain.

Available to stream on Starz

Hijack (2023)

Thrillers set on airplanes are usually fairly short, because generally speaking, even in fiction, we don’t want to spend that much time thinking about the hassles of air travel. Hijack is seven episodes long, which just goes to show that if you give us Idris Elba’s handsome face to look at, we’ll stay on the flight as long as it takes. But the success of the Apple TV+ thriller extends beyond Elba, who’s terrific in the series as a business negotiator trying to gain control over a hijacking on his flight. Through a great ensemble, sharp writing, and twists that leave you anxious for every new episode, Hijack manages to make our extended time on a plane fly by. It’s the next best thing to falling asleep and waking up at your destination.

Available to stream on Apple TV+
12 Turbulent Airplane Thrillers to Stream Right Now