Buckle up! The five most harrowing air crashes on film

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The release of Flight got me thinking – what are the scariest plane-crashes on film?

Denzel Washington is back in the Oscar spotlight for his outstanding performance in Robert Zemeckis’ drama, the director’s first live-action project since Cast Away back in 2000. Like that film, it hinges around a harrowing, gut-wrenching crash of truly terrifying proportions. Consequently, here are my choices of cinema’s bumpiest, bounciest cinematic plane disasters.

Cast Away (2000)

It’s fitting to begin with another Zemeckis slice of in-flight terror. When Tom Hanks’ workaholic Chuck Noland boards an apparently routine flight, leaving behind girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) at Christmas-time, it changes his life forever. Skirting the edge of a storm (that ain’t Santa creating the turbulence), terror ensues when violent depressurization causes the plane to plunge towards a watery demise. Shot entirely inside the bumpy and jostling tin-can, it’s a virtuoso display of technical filmmaking. And by restricting the audience’s viewpoint to that of Hanks’ character, it makes the scene all the more frightening.

Fearless (1993)

The crash from Peter Weir’s drama is arguably the most poetic and beautifully filmed sequence on this list. As his plane goes down, air passenger Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), faced with the almost certain possibility of his death, is effectively freed from fear and enters an almost zen level of calm. Max subsequently survives his ordeal to emerge as a changed, troubled man, one convinced of his own invulnerability. But does this necessarily mean that he has learned to appreciate the value of his own life? We don’t actually see the crash until the end of the film, its eventual reveal acting as Klein’s moment of cathartic redemption – a superb example of how to convey complex storytelling in the midst of technically extraordinary film making.

Final Destination (2000)

This schlocky teen horror is never truly scary – aside from the white-knuckle opening sequence that sets up the vengeful Death gambit. Student Alex (Devon Sawa) has a terrifying premonition that his flight to Paris, on which he’s travelling with his school mates, will end in disaster. After a bumpy take-off, the plane suddenly starts lurching violently, breaking open at the side and eventually consuming all the unfortunate souls in a blistering fireball. By locating the camera firmly in the midst of the screaming passengers, the sequence creates a powerful sense of helplessness, feelings exacerbated by the expert use of sound, whirling camera-work and flickering lights.

Alive (1993)

Based on the true story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed in the Andes in 1972, Frank Marshall’s film begins with a true nail-biter of a sequence. What really resonates is the sense of claustrophobia – it’s only a small plane, so as the crisis unfolds, we really do feel like we’re in the cabin with the stricken passengers. The turbulent bumps are a mere precursor to the horrendous moment where the back of the plane splits off in mid-air – leaving the front half to collide with a mountain slope and compress the seated passengers as if they were little more than sardines in a can.

The Aviator (2004)

Egotistical Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is brought down a peg or ten in this jaw-dropping sequence from Martin Scorsese’s lavish biographical epic. Whilst taking his XF-11 reconnaissance aircraft for a test-flight, Hughes experiences a catastrophic technical malfunction – forcing him to crash-land right in the middle of Beverly Hills. Brilliantly blending CGI, model-work and shattering sound effects, it’s a genuinely nerve-jangling experience, made more-so by DiCaprio’s harrowing performance as Hughes is battered, jolted and eventually burned beyond belief. Well, that’s what hubris does for you!