From ‘Plane’ to ‘Missing,’ When Did Movie Titles Get So Blunt?

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of the Studios
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of the Studios

One of my favorite comedies has a title that always makes me laugh: Airplane! Everything about this title makes me cackle, from the exclamation point to its overall bluntness. Though Airplane! is meant to parody the names of movies like Zero Hour!, I have never gotten over how masterfully this title cuts to the chase—it’s Airplane!, a movie about an airplane. Duh.

Movie titles these days have mostly dropped the satire, but many have kept the frank naming. Think about the the days of Twister—though it may have been to-the-point, the action flick put a fun spin on a title that, under this to-the-point methodology, would’ve just been called Tornado.

But something feels different about this new batch of titles. Sure, there were movies with names like these back in the day, like Alien (with the best sequel title ever, Aliens). But now, they’re funnier. More blunt. We can laugh about them together on social media. They’re less creative, but in a way, they’re also more inventive than any other titles in the market. Movie titles have just gotten so plain-spoken to the point where it feels like we’re all living in a satirical movie about Hollywood.

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Exhibit one is a release from this weekend, Gerard Butler’s new action movie that is called Plane. Plane. Let that sit with you.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Kenneth Rexach/Lionsgate</div>
Kenneth Rexach/Lionsgate

There’s a lot going on in Plane: Butler plays a pilot who has to take a crash landing in the Philippines, where heavily-armed militias threaten to shoot down his passengers, all while he also manages an ex-con on board. Though I admittedly have yet to see this film, I’m a bit confused as to why “plane” is even in the title, considering that after the plane crash, the passengers and crew disembark and journey out onto the Philippine island. But maybe the plane is a character in the story, in the same vein New York City is in Sex and the City.

I don’t want to offer up pitches for a new title—Plane did get me interested—but I do want to get a glimpse inside the room where the Lionsgate execs settled on calling this movie about a plane Plane.Were there ever more unique options for the title, like SOS or even Plane with another word attached, like Plane Down? Or did the business side of things see the concept for a “plane movie” and translate that into “Plane movie,” the search term I’ve been using on Google while researching this film?

Turns out the original pitch was actually The Plane, courtesy of novelist Charles Cumming, who pitched the story from the start and co-wrote the screenplay. But even that isn’t great, because the “plane” part of the movie is so minimal.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Temma Hankin/Sony Pictures</div>
Temma Hankin/Sony Pictures

Then there’s Missing, which is set to open on Jan. 20. A spiritual sequel to movies like Unfriended and Searching, Missing follows a teenage girl (Storm Reid), as she attempts to hunt her mother down online after she goes, you guessed it, missing. I’m a sucker for movies that take place entirely through a computer screen, so I’m willing to look past the title—though folks online have already been cackling over Storm Reid’s line “STOP SCROLLING!” in the trailer. Missing is coming in hot to replace M3GAN.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Studio</div>
Courtesy of Studio

Unfriended was a brilliant name for a thriller, especially since the film takes place through social media websites on a computer screen. Short, but it also teases a greater disconnect. Then there’s Searching, the reverse of Missing, in which John Cho attempts to locate his missing daughter. But even “searching” is a double entendre—as Cho is “searching” for her, he’s also “searching” the internet for traces of her.

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Missing, on the other hand, uses this same participle-as-title convention but isn’t a play on words in any way. Maybe there’s an app called “missing” or some other cheeky use of the word in the movie. But from what I can tell, it’s a lazy way to keep this straightforward title trend going. Alas, it does make me laugh, because the title Missing feels like the Airplane! of online mystery movies.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Studio</div>
Courtesy of Studio

There are a handful of other recent titles that come to mind. Beast, Idris Elba’s freakishly delightful action comedy featuring a massive lion, made me laugh. “We need to go see BEAST,” I would bellow to my friends, drawing out the word like it was a big creature in and of itself. There’s Sick, an upcoming thriller heading to Peacock about a few friends quarantining during the pandemic. The titles Emily the Criminal and Emily in Paris paint me distinct portraits of two very different Emilys in a very straightforward way.

I pray that this trend continues. I similarly hope that, unlike Airplane!, the blunt movie titles will be used in total earnest—which makes them even funnier. What if Titanic was called Boat? Or Tár was simply titled Conductor? We could take the “girl” out of Gone Girl and “on the Orient Express” out of Murder on the Orient Express. The simpler and more chaotic, the better.

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