Top 10 Variations on Plane Crashes in Cinema

Major aviation disasters in the movies can happen anywhere at any time for a number of reasons, as Mark Fraser has discovered.

10. The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978)

The-Medusa-Touch_richard-burton_top10filmsTo show Dr Zonfield (Lee Remick) that he really has destructive telekinetic powers, John Morlar (Richard Burton) wills a passenger-filled 747 to fly into a London skyscraper. It’s arguable this moment of destruction now lacks the novelty it enjoyed back in the late 1970s given just about all contemporary audiences from around the world are now reasonably familiar with the New York 9/11 footage of 2001, when a couple of commercial flights actually flew into two of the world’s tallest buildings.

9. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)

cast-away_tom-hanks_top10filmsA FedEx cargo plane carrying company employee Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) plunges into the Pacific Ocean after encountering a storm while flying to Malaysia. Director Robert Zemeckis and his cinematographer Don Burgess pretty much cover the whole thing using interiors, thus creating a dangerously claustrophobic environment of sheer terror. They revisited similar territory 12 years later in 2012’s Flight (see below).

8. The Grey (Joe Carnahan, 2011)

The_Grey_liam-neesonWhen a group of oil rig employees are stranded in the freezing Alaskan outback after their mid-sized passenger plane crashes, they are pursued by a deadly pack of wolves. Like the above Cast Away and Peter Weir’s Fearless (see below), there are no exterior shots of the accident – rather, all of the action takes place in the rapidly disintegrating cabin as the passengers and Russian crew try to buckle up before impact. A brief, but nevertheless effective, hair raising moment in what ultimately turns out to be quite a solid man-versus-nature movie.

7. (TIE): Airport ‘77 (Jerry Jameson, 1977)

airport-77_jack-lemmon_top10filmsProbably one of the last big budget, all-star Hollywood disaster movies to do reasonable business at the box office, Airport ‘77 follows the final journey of a privately-owned Boeing 747 that crash lands and sinks somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle after a botched hijack-robbery. It is then up to Captain Don Gallagher (a very stoic and straight-faced Jack Lemmon) to help lead his passengers to safety. While this third installment of the Airport franchise is, in many ways, somewhat sillier than its predecessor Airport 1975 (which itself is fairly far-fetched), it does enjoy a better cast (including Lee Grant and Christopher Lee), contains more flashy spectacle (namely the plane’s night time landing in the ocean and its eventual rescue from the shallow underwater shelf on which it precariously rests) and is more fun to sit through.

7. (TIE): The Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1965)

flight-of-the-phoenix-1965_top10filmsIn one of the great sets of opening credits in Hollywood cinema, director Robert Aldrich successfully introduces all of the film’s central characters as the cargo plane in which they are travelling comes down somewhere in the Sahara after it encounters a violent sand storm. A quite novel and economic approach to storytelling, this scene is given a boost by Frank De Vol’s dramatic score and Aldrich’s effective use of the freeze frame. Interestingly, the director’s son William – who plays one of the passengers – gets an opening credit to himself but is then immediately killed in the ensuing chaos. Remade by John Moore in 2004 (only this time set in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert) as Flight of the Phoenix.

6. Con Air (Simon West, 1997)

con-air_john-cusack_top10filmsAfter a high security prison plane is hijacked by a group of inmates, it is forced to crash land along the main strip of Las Vegas after a planned escape attempt is thwarted by the film’s hero (Nicolas Cage). Unfortunately the worst of the escapees (John Malkovich and Ving Rhames) survive the carnage-strewn incident and steal a fire engine. Meanwhile, America’s most notorious serial killer (Steve Buscemi) disappears into the Vegas crowd. Undeniably the most light-hearted heavy duty aviation incident on this list, with plenty of action going on within and outside of the plane as it approached the bright lights of the desert city. A propeller slicing its way through the fuselage during a climatic fight scene between Cage and Malkovich adds a nice touch to the proceedings.

5. Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009)

knowing_nic-cage_top10filmsNicolas Cage pops up again, this time as Professor Jonathon Koester, an astrophysicist who discovers that some aliens are after his kiddie and the world is about to end due to massive solar flaring. While caught up in a traffic jam, Koestler witnesses the crash landing of a commercial passenger jet and runs to the aid of some of the survivors, many of whom are on fire as they emerge from the burning wreckage. Although it all happens pretty quickly, this scene delivers a fairly strong punch. Furthermore, it all looks frightfully authentic.

4. World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013)

worldwarzcrash_top10filmsThings go from bad to worse when it turns out that a passenger plane fleeing a zombie invasion of Jerusalem has one of the infected on board. As expected, all hell breaks loose in the cabin as civilized people are turned into crazies, leaving erstwhile UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and wounded Israeli soldier Lieutenant Segen (Daniella Kertesz) little time to figure out how to avoid being bitten by the rabid ones. In the end Lane literally throws caution to the wind by tossing a grenade at the advancing horde, the resultant explosion ripping a giant hole in the fuselage and sucking the zombies out. Luckily the pair get their seatbelts on in time before the plane hurtles into the Welsh countryside.

3. Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012)

flight_denzel-washington_top10filmsFollowing a night of heavy partying and a bring-me-down cocaine breakfast, alcoholic commercial jet pilot William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) gets a busier hangover than he bargained for when he is forced to pull off the seemingly impossible task of crash landing his passenger-filled plane after its control mechanisms go haywire – at one point flying it upside down to maintain altitude. The pissed-off look on Whitaker’s face when the right wing of the gliding jet clips a church steeple just before it lands is absolutely priceless.

2. Alive (Frank Marshall, 1993)

alive_film_andes_plane-crash_top10filmsDuring October 1972, a small Chile-bound commercial flight carrying a Uruguayan college rugby team and a few other folk smashed into the Andes. When the rescue team failed to eventuate, the survivors reverted to cannibalism to stay alive. The wrecked fuselage – which takes one hell of a beating during the horrific crash – remains an integral part of this true story throughout the rest of the film given it provides the remnant passengers their only shelter from the freezing conditions.

1. Fearless (Peter Weir, 1993)

Fearless-1993_top10filmsMax Klein (Jeff Bridges) begins to think he is indestructible after living through a plane crash somewhere near Bakersfield in California while on a business trip. It’s only when he relives the experience at the end of the film (via a flashback in which the accident is vividly created by director Peter Weir) that he comes back to reality. Despite being dragged down by some melodramatic developments in its middle, Fearless is easily one of Weir’s best films and contains what is possibly the finest moment in his strangely eclectic oeuvre – that being the opening scene when a determined Klein leads a number of other passengers to safety through a haze covered corn field just after the plane has come down.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: Let us know what you think of the films listed above in the comments section…

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. jackdeth72 Reply

    Cheers, Mark:

    Nicely thought out and executed choices!

    Great catch with ‘The Flight of The Phoenix’! An excellent survival story brought to life.

    Having worked on C-123s, the transport plane in ‘Con Air’. There is no crawlspace under its cargo section floor. Just lots of Hydraulic plumbing and electrical wiring bundles.

    Kudos to Weir’s ‘Fearless’ in the Number one spot!

    Bridges handles the survivor role beautifully with a touch of dazed melancholy.

    Personal favorite is the stricken B-17 returning to gear up, belly land at Archbury AAF in the beginning of ’12 o’clock High’. Showing the strength of Boeing products and their ability to get the crew home.

  2. Greg Reply

    Good stuff. Love Fearless but I’m not sure you can beat the raw intensity of the scene from Cast Away.

  3. Peter Reply

    Nice to see The Medusa Touch get a mention. Devastating stuff.

    I’ve always found the Alive plane crash terrifying, perhaps because of the harrowing based-on-real-life events that take place after it.

  4. Chris Reply

    That plane crash in Alive (1993) is super realistic, good to see that on the list.

    I’d add as honorable mentions Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

  5. Rodney Reply

    Great list, Mark! Personally, I’d have ranked Cast Away a little higher, but that aside I can’t complain much here. And I’ll echo others’ statements about Flight Of The Phoenix – great catch. I’d have totally forgotten about that one.

  6. Mark Reply

    @ all – thank you for your input.

    @Jack Deth – if there is no crawlspace in the C-123, where does the bunny in the box go?

    @Rodney – Looking back, I agree with you on Cast Away …. it probably should have been a wee bit higher.

  7. Evan Crean Reply

    Glad to see The Grey, World War Z, and Flight made it onto your list Mark. They’re all terrifying, well-done sequences. World War Z was frantic, but Flight left me very stirred because it seemed like more of a real situation I could get caught in. I think one of the reasons that Robert Zemeckis is so good at doing plane crash sequences is that he’s a pilot, and can capture some nuances that others with a lack of experience in that area may miss.

  8. Dan Grant Reply

    Awesome list. Thanks for creating this one. I’m glad Knowing is on here. I would of had it higher as it is one of, if not, the most shocking plane crash scenes I’ve ever seen.

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