“Flying’s very dangerous. In 1987, there were 30 airline accidents; 211 were fatalities and 230 were definitely passengers.” When “Rain Man” was released in 1988, airlines edited this scene out of the film before showing it to passengers.
The deleted segment was important to the plot—it explains why Raymond and Charlie drive cross-country rather than use more convenient modes of transport. Still, airlines’ squeamishness is hardly surprising.
Despite Tom Cruise’s assurances that air travel is “the safest…in the world”, flyers prefer not to be reminded of the one-in-11m chance that they might die. To this day, airlines avoid playing the scene on shared screens. (Only Qantas allowed it to be shown: Raymond lists it as the only airline to have never crashed.)
If aeroplane-disaster flicks such as “Sully” (2016, pictured above) and “Flight” (2012) are obviously unsuitable for in-flight entertainment, what do carriers look for when offering a film? On short-haul flights with shared screens, the goal is to find something that might appeal to everybody.
That is a tough task. In his book on censorship, Michael Cornick argues that “terrorism, nudity or sex scenes, profanity, and racist or disparaging comments to any ‘culture, religion, or nationality’” are elements to be avoided. So are violence and drug abuse. Given its predilection for guns and sex, that leaves Hollywood with little to work with.
Thinking back on the films this correspondent has recently watched, only “La La Land” (2016) would be suitable for unedited broadcast on a shared screen. “Rogue One” (2016), “War Dogs” (2016), “Joy” (2015), “Patriot Games” (1992) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) would all have to be cut, redubbed or mangled beyond recognition.
On long-haul flights, where flyers can choose which film to watch on their seat-back screens, guidelines tend to be more relaxed.
Terrorism and plane crashes are still unlikely to be optioned, says Joe Leader of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, an airline-industry group, although Virgin Atlantic allowed “Sully” to be shown. (Most passengers, thinks the airline, are aware that the true tale of a US Airways jet trying to land on the Hudson River ends successfully. And besides, it helps to emphasise the importance of knowing safety procedures.) But entertainment providers can take a selective approach to editing based on the likely demographic of the flight.
Mr Leader says that the “best litmus test for regional in-flight entertainment practices” is local television.
In Europe, he says, “some nudity may be readily seen on broadcast television” but violence and gore is less palatable, while in America and the Middle East violence is widely tolerated but nudity is more unlikely or considered offensive. Such differences can result in some jarring editing choices.
On a recent Malaysia Airlines flight, buttocks in “The Revenant” were blurred, as were tribal women’s breasts in “The Birth of a Nation”, but the grisly work of bears, axes and whips was left in full graphic detail.
Given that most in-flight systems allow passengers to browse a menu of films and read a short summary of the each, including its rating, plot and content warnings, is any censorship at 30,000 feet still appropriate? After all, flyers are the best judge of their own taste and values. That may be true, but seat-back entertainment can still be seen by other passengers, argues Mr Leader. So capping films at PG-13 and “common sense guidelines” are “completely appropriate.”
Still, many flyers view long-haul flights as an opportunity to catch up on missed recent films; censorship and blurring, no matter how insignificant to the plot, are irritating. So it is unsurprising that some prefer to watch their own films on tablets and laptops.
That trend will increase as on-board Wi-Fi becomes more reliable (and more planes include sockets to charge electrical items).
A 2016 survey from IATA, an airline association, found that in-flight entertainment was among the least satisfying parts of flying, and that around half of passengers would like to stream content on personal devices.
That day cannot come fast enough. Nevertheless, some may come to miss the days of nonsensical overdubbing on sweary films. No longer will we be able to hear Samuel L Jackson’s badly synced rallying call on "Snakes on a Plane": "I am sick and tired of these monkey-fightin' snakes on this Monday to Friday plane". That is a shame, of sorts.