Plane thrillers are claustrophobic affairs, with literally nowhere to run. They provide directors with the unique challenge of keeping the action going within a small space, heightening viewer’s fear of flying through the added threat of criminal activity. In plane-set films, the life-or-death stakes of a thriller can feel even higher than usual. After all, when the plane crashes, then its game over for everyone — making you wonder what you might do if you found yourself in such a situation. Reaching its height in the 1990s, back in a pre-9/11 time when plane hijackings — at least from an American point of view — were seen more as a type of fantasy, many plane thrillers often resemble each other. Yet, the greatest ones understand what makes the genre work. To celebrate the best of the genre, we have a great selection for you here: from strange mysteries to classic hijacking plots to the transportation of several deadly criminals, these five films offer the greatest high-flying thrills. Read on to see what we’ve picked. Disagree with our choices? Let us know in the comment section below!
Normally the hero is already on the plane when it gets hijacked, but Executive Decision does things differently, forcing its two heroes Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell) and Lieutenant Colonel Austrin Travis (Steven Seagal) to board the plane mid-air from their own experimental plane. The results are truly gripping, as we watch them attempt to sneak onto an airliner containing deadly poison gas that’s ready to be unleashed upon the entire Eastern Seaboard. This is the first of many innovations brought by Executive Decision, which plays a fascinating game of cat-and-mouse to locate the detonator for the bomb. The film also features the most surprising use of Steven Seagal during his mainstream era, sacrificing himself in the first act to make way for the other heroes. He would never display such humility ever again.
Air Force One
Air Force One offers the ultimate alpha male American fantasy, allowing us to imagine a world where the Commander in Chief is also a rugged fighting hero. The man in question is Harrison Ford, who plays President James Marshall, a Vietnam veteran fighting against communist radicals. The makers of the film were allowed to board Air Force One in order to get inspiration for their movie, creating a full-size replica for the shoot. While many fantastical elements were added, such as an escape pod, what you see here more or less resembles the actual plane the president flies in. While the production design is more-or-less accurate, the rest of the film is pure fun and escapism, shot with great flair by German director Wolfgang Pieterson. Harrison Ford plays opposite Gary Oldman, throwing in the kitchen sink as Kazakh loyalist Ivan Korshunov, vowing revenge against America for their role in dismantling the Soviet Union. Air Force One is also particularly obsessed with the reaction back home, filled with endless press conferences and Washington intrigue, giving us the full overview of what a Presidential hijacking might actually be like.
One of many fantastic collaborations between Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra, it tells the story of a compromised Federal Air Marshal who must find a murderer on an international flight once he is texted by someone saying that a passenger will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired to a specific bank account. Taking place on a flight between New York and London, Non-Stop offers a variety of mystery pleasures, including flirtations with the wrong man genre and the whodunnit. Liam Neeson brings a certain believability to proceedings, convincingly bringing us with him on the journey and making us care about his predicament. Also co-starring Julianne Moore as a fellow passenger willing to be of help, and Non-Stop even manages to spin romance out of its deadly serious premise.
Easily the most ridiculous film on the list, Con Air represented the peak of the anything-goes Jerry Bruckheimer production era of the 90s. Abandoning logic for spectacle and genuine character work for cliché, Con Air takes all the silliest tropes of the genre and turns them up to 11. Telling the story of a group of criminals being transported to a maximum security prison via air, it is one of the most purely entertaining action films of all time. Our hero here is unfortunately imprisoned criminal Cameron Poe, put in jail after killing a man while defending his wife, played with a ridiculous Southern accent by Nicolas Cage. With his parole nearly up, he boards the plane before it is hijacked by his fellow detainees. He is the sole dissenting voice on board, fighting a variety of gruesome criminals in order to finally see his wife and daughter again. With an all-star cast featuring John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, John Cusack, Dave Chappelle, Ving Rhames and Colm Meaney, Con Air is a truly one-of-a-kind-experience.
The newest member of the plane thriller club, 7500 strips down the genre to its purest essentials. Here the entirety of the action takes place within the cockpit of the plane, meaning no responses back in the control tower, or the depiction of police forces on the ground. Instead the film really focuses only machinations within the plane itself, making for a truly gripping experience. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the airplane pilot, who manages to secure the door in time when terrorists take over while watching the action unfold via a monitor. The director then uses this unique spin on the genre to set up a series of moral conundrums, as he must decide between opening the door or letting hostages die. Easily the most serious film on the list, 7500 — referring to the emergency code pilots use in the case of a hijacking — unfolds in almost real-time. Additionally, featuring only diegetic sounds, we are fully immersed into the pilot’s situation, giving 7500 an unusual sense of intimacy.
*Honorable mention to Passenger 57