Article Title

Aviation Cinema

Document Type



While the history of human air travel coincides with the history of the cinema, no one filmed the Wright brothers’ groundbreaking first 1903 flight. Today, air travel has become both commonplace and yet still remains a thrilling imaginative event. In this essay, I analyze aviation cinema, offering a typology of a genre of narrative film that becomes legible around a few interchangeable structural elements: the pilot, the passenger, the aircraft, the terminal. Yet even with such a limited palette, because it is a genre in motion, aviation cinema is also characterized by its fluidity, exchange, liminal crossings, and other reorganizations of an initial narrative state. While narrative by definition puts characters into flux, aviation cinema always does so in multiple registers. The variations in the simple calculus of pilot-passenger-aircraft-terminal results in the 100 or so films I survey. After briefly introducing the history of early filmed flight through the lens of cartography and Paul Virilio’s neologism “picnolepsy,” I discuss aviation cinema’s two central sets, the terminal and the airplane, as they are traversed by its primary actors, the passenger and pilot. In doing so, I show how the primary transaction of flight between pilot and passenger is navigated by a series of liminal figures: the sky marshal, the stowaway, the hijacker, the air traffic controller, the ground crew, the mechanic, terminal staff, and the flight attendant.