There have been some outstanding movies about plane travel over the years – Airplane! of course, United 93, and um, Airplane II. Then there were some flawed-but-entertaining popcorn flicks we can’t help but enjoy – we’re looking at you, Die Hard 2 and Con Air.
But today we celebrate something different – the absolute stinkiest, most horrible, most misguided airplane movies of all time. And like a mid-air serving of a double gin and tonic, the competition is stiff.
Whether it’s wooden acting, plot holes you could fly a 747 through, or laughable special effects, these are the six worst movies about plane travel of all time. Military plane movies don’t count, so you can rest easy, Pearl Harbor. As you might expect, most of these are disaster films, though one poorly conceived attempt to imitate Airplane! also makes the bottom 6.
Some of these bombs do redeem themselves a little as guilty pleasures, so we rate that too. Buckle up, because we’re in for some turbulent viewing, and beware: there are lots of spoilers ahead:
Despite Denzel’s acting skills, Flight never gets off the ground. (Courtesy: Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle
Yes, I know I’m in the minority if we’re talking Rotten Tomatoes scores. And the movies we’ll include in the bottom 6 are much worse. But if we consider how high director Robert Zemeckis was aiming with this film, ending up with a glorified “very special episode” of a 1980s TV drama about drug addiction is a big miss. Only through the power of Washington’s acting chops and an impressive opening crash sequence isFlight saved at all. And even in the case of Washington, he’s performing an unlikable character who shows no real desire to clean up his act throughout a series of predictable relapses. With apologies to Washington in Training Day, King Kong ain’t got nothing on this poseur of a film.
OK, that’s out of my system. And by the way, Flight just barely edged outSnakes on a Plane for dishonorable mention (I know you loved it when it came out, but go back and look at that snake CGI. I’ll wait right here). Now, on to the worst of the worst:
6. Turbulence (1997)
Lauren Holly in a career-tarnishing performance. (Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Starring: Ray Liotta, Lauren Holly
You realize this movie is bad when: OK, so we get that Holly’s flight attendant has had some bad luck with men in the film’s opening. No big deal there. But when she allows herself to be duped into trusting a knownserial killer whose fellow convict has somehow managed to kill several armed police detectives right in front of her? So you’re telling me there’s a chance, Lauren Holly? Her character is one of the worst-written movie heroines I can think of – I can imagine a flight attendant being coached on how to land a plane after both pilots die, before it’s blown up by the military. I just can’t picture her doing it.
Lame dialogue alert: You mean, if we’re not including a completely berserk and over-the-top Liotta singing “Buffalo Gals”? How about this killer exchange between his and Holly’s characters:
Him: You’re not going to kill me. You can’t kill me, ‘cause you don’t believe in capital punishment.
Her: I changed my mind!
Ridiculous stunt to watch for: The plane is flying into a massive storm that threatens to crash it because, well, that’s just what planes do in disaster movies. But you can’t get more cliché than flying a 747 upside-down in a storm! Sadly, this isn’t the only time I’ll mention upside-down plane-flying in this article.
Guilty pleasure rating (on a scale of 1 to 10): 7. You’ll either love Liotta going from charming to crazy during this movie or you’ll hate it. But one thing you can’t say he does in Turbulence is mail it in. He’s truly deranged and he wants you to know it.
5. Soul Plane (2004)
With Snoop Dogg, smoking on the plane is always allowed. (Courtesy: MGM)
Starring: Kevin Hart, Tom Arnold, Sofia Vergara, Snoop Dogg
You realize this movie is bad when: The most realistic character in the movie is Snoop Dogg, and he plays a weed-smoking pilot
I would have been all for the airplane version of Friday. But it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to be when every joke falls flat, every racial and sexual stereotype is thoroughly mined, and every performance is stilted. No one is funny enough to carry the movie. Hart has made better performances since, but he barely seems to care in this bomb
Lame dialogue alert: I could simply copy-paste the entire script. But since I have to pick one, how about this post-9/11 gem?
Middle Eastern passenger: This is the bomb!
Everyone on plane is silent
Middle Eastern passenger: What? Let’s dance!
Ridiculous stunt to watch for: I know we’re not looking for realism in a movie called Soul Plane, but I’m still unconvinced you can fit a massive nightclub into a jetliner.
Guilty pleasure rating: 7. You do have a young Vergara auditioning for her future role in Modern Family; Mo’Nique and Love are funny in cameos as frisky airport screeners; spinning rims on the plane wheels are cool; and this movie may include the first attempt at a concept pre-flight safety video. Virgin America might have been taking notes on that one.
4. Altitude (2010)
Less annoying teen actors, more sky monster please. (Courtesy: Anchor Bay)
Starring: Jessica Lowndes, Julianna Guill, Ryan Donowho
You realize this movie is bad when: You desperately want the giant octopus monster in the sky to kill everyone on the plane.
I can disparage a lot about this movie that fails miserably at being a cross between The Twilight Zone and Donnie Darko: the extremely annoying, stereotypical teen-movie characters such as the pig-headed jock and the artsy film major with a camera; the laughable attempts at romantic dialogue and heart-to-heart conversations even during a deadly storm; and the fact that the movie is about a bunch of friends flying a Twin Cessna just to see Coldplay.
But what’s really a slap in the face is casting Lowndes as the ostensibly strong female lead and then making us realize near the end that she’s not the protagonist at all – she’s actually a bad pilot and a passive follower while her whiny boyfriend is the one who saves the day only after his imagination created a sky monster that kills three of their friends. Score one for gender progress.
Lame dialogue alert: “Our lives are going in different directions!” You have to love a good breakup scene between a couple just as death is descending upon them.
Ridiculous stunt to watch for: The plane’s five passengers repeatedly manage to open the Cessna’s door with no consequence, but the winner is when the cool rock-climbing musician guy climbs out of the plane in the middle of an apocalyptic storm while fastened by a rope and fixes the rudder while riding the plane like a mechanical bull. But he does die on his way back into the plane, so I guess that’s realistic.
Guilty pleasure rating: 3. Aside from some decent cinematography and special effects, there’s not much to enjoy here. Unless you’re into the giant octopus monster in the sky that deserved way more screen time than the cast.
3. The Concorde: Airport ’79 (1979)
The Concorde was a great plane. Too bad Concorde the movie bombs. (Courtesy: Mary Evans/Universal Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
Starring: Alain Delon, Susan Blakely, Robert Wagner
You realize this movie is bad when: Charo and Jimmie “Dyn-o-mite” Walker have prominent roles.
Anyone under the age of 30 probably doesn’t know that the Airplanecomedies were spoofing the Airport disaster dramas that ran throughout the 1970s. And while those flicks look very dated now (they actually playPong in the plane), they weren’t that bad: I enjoyed Airport ’77, which includes a young Christopher Lee.
But The Concorde: Airport ’79 is a colossal screw-up, the empty hull of a franchise out of ideas. Good luck making sense of a convoluted plot where a bad-guy aerospace entrepreneur played by Robert Wagner tries to shoot down a Concorde with a drone and a fighter jet but misses … and then the plane takes off again the next day with a full set of passengers! All while Wagner’s investigative-reporter girlfriend can’t quite seem to put together that she’s dating a psychopath. George Kennedy (who was way better in a supporting role in Naked Gun) delivers one clunky one-liner after another as the pilot, and the celebrity cast is openly trying to steal fromThe Love Boat.
Lame dialogue alert: The pilots deliver a series of misogynistic lines that I won’t mention here, so we’ll let Charo take it away when she says, “Don’t misconscrew me.”
Ridiculous stunt to watch for: That would have to be the scene when Kennedy’s character is flying the Concorde, evading two Phantom fighter jets and shooting at them with a pistol from the cockpit, then flying the plane upside-down. I have nothing more to add.
Guilty pleasure rating: 2. Perhaps if they remade the movie and replaced Charo with Lindsay Lohan, I’d bump up this number.
2. Airplane vs. Volcano (2014)
There are no winners in Airplane vs. Volcano. (Courtesy: The Asylum)
Starring: Dean Cain, Robin Givens
You realize this movie is bad when: You watch the opening credits, set against an awful CGI lava background. And you realize that this movie was made by the same people who brought you Sharknado, but with few of the same guilty-pleasure benefits.
People who respect aviation logic and good special effects will probably need a barf bag while watching this movie about a ring of super volcanoes that suddenly pop up in Hawaii. After the pilot and co-pilot are killed by a volcanic eruption outside the plane (why do both pilots always die in these movies?), Cain steps in from premium economy to fly the plane, which also happens to be carrying a volcanologist and an air marshal and a pint-sized villain with a bad Middle Eastern accent. Cain, who once played Superman by the way, somehow manages to keep the plane in the air for an hour directly over spewing lava and ash, and on the ground Givens is playing a geologist who convinces a horribly acted, incompetent Army colonel to change all of his orders.
Lame dialogue alert: Here’s an exchange between the pilot and co-pilot right before they die (yes, both pilots die again). Just picture the most melodramatic delivery possible:
Co-pilot: Captain, radio’s down.
Co-pilot: That’s not what scares me.
Pilot: What’s that?
Co-pilot: How long it’s BEEN down.
Dun dun dunnnn!
Also, there’s a climactic military plane attack against the super volcano that openly rips off the Death Star battle in Star Wars where the pilots use lines such as “Red Wing 5 standing by.” Plus, they say “I’m going in!” more times than I could count.
Ridiculous stunt to watch for: You have your obligatory “guy goes outside the plane in mid-flight to save it” scene. But the worst stunt of all is Cain intentionally flying a 737-sized plane into some giant lava chunks to shave off the engines. That actually happens.
Guilty pleasure rating: 5. If you know Asylum movies and what they’re all about – they did make Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, after all – you might enjoy sitting through this. The Army war room is hilarious, with low-rent furniture, wooden shades drawn, and outdated computers. And I did laugh when a lava chunk goes right through a solider’s chest while he’s totally expressionless.
1. Turbulent Skies (2010)
Nice hair, bad acting by Casper Van Dien (Image: Anchor Bay/YouTube)
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Nicole Eggert
You realize this movie is bad when: There’s an exterior shot of the plane in mid-flight at the start of the movie, and its landing gear and flaps are down … Also, when you find yourself wondering if they wrote and filmed this entire stinkbomb in one afternoon. Which might have impressed me.
I want everyone to understand how spectacularly Turbulent Skies fails as a movie – it hits so many criteria, it’s perfect in its incompetence. Let’s count the ways:
- I already noted the landing gear being down, but the aviation screw-ups don’t end there. Later in the movie, they mistake F-15 fighters for F-16s, the pilots die (again, bothpilots!) because lightning strikes the plane (not gonna happen), and we’re supposed to believe that the FAA would allow an untested auto-pilot system to fly passengers across the country on a whim.
- It’s not that the acting is bad, which it is. But I’ve never seen a movie where actors are stepping on each other’s lines or missing their beats so badly. This is like the anti-clinic on how to perform in a movie. Van Dien plays a dynamic engineer who designed a complex auto-pilot system, and he genuinely seems confused about what’s happening in every scene.
- The “villain” is a complete ripoff of HAL 9000 from 2001, only it has a blue eye and although it’s supposed to be a piece of cutting-edge aviation technology, it looks like a 1991 stereo speaker.
- The special-effects smoke looks like it was drawn in pencil.
- The plane flies unexpectedly into … wait for it … a giant storm!
Lame dialogue alert: It may have been an inside joke, but there’s a moment when Eggert, who once starred in Charles in Charge, is talking to the sleazy entrepreneur named Charles who accidentally infects the auto-pilot with a virus, and he tells her, “I know what I’m doing. I’m in charge.”
Ridiculous stunt to watch for: We’ve already given you examples of characters going outside the plane in mid-flight. But how about the cinematic history that’s made by Van Dien’s character being deliveredinto the doomed airliner via an “experimental transfer tube” on an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane?!
Guilty pleasure rating: 3. You might find yourself laughing at the grainy Blackbird footage the director uses. Also, when the military is deciding whether to shoot the plane down to save lives (another common disaster-movie trope), I couldn’t help but chuckle that the city they’re trying to protect from a crash landing is Cleveland (sorry, Clevelanders).