Film and psychology experts speak to Journal of Wonder about one of the deepest human desires: flying. Let’s take a look at some of the movies and animated features that engage with this impossible dream. To be able to fly is one of humanity’s great dreams, from ancient times to the present day. It represents freedom, daring, transformation, discovery – among many other ideas. A fertile ground for film.
For those who enjoy a good movie, there will always be that special scene involving flight, which evokes these, and other, ideas and emotions. With the help of specialists in psychology and cinema, we went looking for explanations for this power that flying holds over people. Also, check out the list of films that, in the opinion of the interviewees, give wings to characters and our imagination.
Flying symbolises freedom
In addition to appearing frequently in the unconscious, especially in dreams, flying is notable in different forms of art and creativity. From cave paintings to myths, from Da Vinci’s drawings to fiction books about other galaxies, there is no shortage of stories about the desire to take flight to distant or unfamiliar places.
One of the most iconic myths is that of Daedalus and Icarus, from about 1400 BC, which tells the story of how a father and son construct wings, with feathers and wax, to escape a labyrinth. Unfortunately, the ending was not a happy one for Icarus, who, through either immaturity or arrogance, did not listen to the advice of his father, Daedalus, and flew too close to the sun.
“The founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, said that there are no desires we want to satisfy, but rather only attempts to become who we really are”, explains Pablo de Assis, a psychologist with a masters in communications. “He believed that one of the ways we ‘self-discover’ is through our relationship with opposites. So, if being on earth is being trapped, flying is the idea of freedom”.
The cinema gives us wings
Cinema, often called the seventh art, like other art forms, brings with it an idea of freedom, in this case, giving wings to the imagination. After all, flying machines are not always used in movies. Magic, superpowers and fantastic animals come in to lend a helping hand. For Vitor Búrigo, a film critic, flying is related to playfulness, a release or a moment of emotion for the characters.
Journalist and film critic Sérgio Rizzo sees making movies and flying as having elements in common. Both have to do with human ambition.
“There is a historical correspondence: cinema at the end of the 19th century embodied an ancient ambition of the human being, which was to reproduce the movement of nature. And a little later, there is man, through aviation, reproducing this other desire to take flight”, he says.
“The more films that approach the subject of flight, the more it reflects our personal desires. I see them as a mirror”, says psychologist Pablo de Assis. Whether or not it is everyone’s dream, watching a flight scene on the big screen brings an unparalleled sensation.
1. Mary Poppins
Released in 1964, this musical comedy tells the story of a magical nanny who enters the lives of a British family, with the goal of making children’s day-to-day chores and activities more fun. In addition to singing and dancing, the character, played by Julie Andrews, has the ability to fly with an umbrella. “Flying obviously should be a characteristic of a magical, joyous and exceptional person”, explains Pablo. The film was so successful that, more than 50 years later, in 2018, a sequel was released, Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt in the lead role.
2. Peter Pan
The animated film, from 1953, portrays a boy’s difficulty in growing up. In the middle of the night, a magical boy, Peter Pan, enters the room of Wendy and her two brothers and takes them to Neverland, where it is possible to be a child forever. To get there, you must fly, a power that is given to the three as soon as they agree to follow the leader of the Lost Boys.
“Peter Pan plays with the children’s fantasies, with their dreams. In the film, the ability to fly represents the desire they have to leave the real world in which they live”, explains Vitor. Various versions of the story have been produced, including Hook (1991), Finding Neverland (2004), and Pan (2015), among others.
3. A Trip to the Moon
In 1902, this feature became the first ever science fiction film. Considered avant-garde, it depicted the voyage to the moon, which happened just 67 years later with the Apollo 11 spacecraft. The film was written and directed by Georges Meliès and became extremely popular at the time, mainly due to its special effects.
“What was once related to flight – freedom, insecurity, fear, unknown, power, force – was lost with the invention of the airplane. It was necessary, then, to find another concept to attach these feeling and ideas to. For me, it was the conquest of space”, says Pablo.
Directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, this feature film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015. The story is about a movie star, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), as he prepares to star in debut his Broadway production to prove he is a serious artist. At the same time, he must deal with thousands of personal complications, including his own insecurity and ego.
In the film, these two elements of the character are symbolized by the presence of a Birdman, who flies above Riggan’s head giving him words of motivation (with a certain arrogance). “Throughout the character’s decadence and failure, flight represents his desire to return to being a success and to be recognized again”, analyses film critic Vitor Búrigo.
5. E.T. the Extra-terrestrial
Differentiating itself from films portraying aliens as evil beings, this 1982 classic directed by Steven Spielberg tells the story of an alien that becomes a boy’s best friend in suburban California. The E.T. has several powers, among them, flying, which is shown at the climax of the film. For Pablo de Assis, in this case, flight represents collaboration and friendship.
“I saw E.T. at the cinema. The moment the characters took off, there was applause, people screaming, a room of a thousand people thrilled by an unforgettable cinematographic moment”, says Sérgio.
Based on the DC Comics of the 1930s, Superman was one of the first superhero movies. Released in 1978, the film follows the young Clark Kent, who discovers he has special powers and uses them to fight evil in the city of Metropolis.
“This character’s ability to fly represents the power of someone strong and fast”, says the psychologist. How many children did not grow up tying a red cloak around themselves, pretending to be Superman?
7. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
From director Ang Lee, the film, released in 2000, portrays the meeting of two women who have to face each other in a duel. The fight scenes contain a number of surprising jumps and acts of flight. “It’s not just a fight, it is symbolic of spirituality and openness of consciousness. The more highly trained you are in your martial art, the more spiritual you are and the greater your ability to fly”, reflects Pablo.
8. The Aviator
Despite being different from the other films on this list because it is inspired by real events, few represent the passion for flight and aircraft as well as this 2004 movie. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the true story portrays the life of Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. After the death of his father, the young man, who becomes a millionaire, dedicates himself to aviation.
Today, Hughes is considered one of the United States’ greatest heroes. He survived four air crashes, broke world airspeed records, and developed commercial aircraft.
The 1984 film tells the story of two friends, Birdy (Matthew Modine) and Al (Nicholas Cage), who are sent to the Vietnam War. When they return from the conflict, Birdy, who has an obsession with birds, is hospitalized in a psychiatric facility and Al tries to bring him back to reality.
The symbolism of flying in this film does not require much analysis. The bird, for Birdy, is a metaphor for escaping reality and liberation from his psychological condition.
10. La La Land
“La La Land brings to today the fantasy of the musicals of yesteryear”, says Vitor. Winner of six Oscars in 2017, the film portrays the love story of two young people frustrated with their professional lives.
Love scenes are creatively portrayed, including those in which the characters take flight. “When there are scenes of the characters flying and dancing, it is a moment when the director wants to demonstrate the strength of the passion they are feeling”, explains Vitor. “It’s their excitement in being together, just the two of them, as if they were really in the clouds”.
11. How to Train Your Dragon
The 2010 animated film, follows a Viking society, for whom fighting dragons is part of daily life. However, the young Hiccup finds a wounded dragon and creates a prosthetic tail fin so it can fly again. The friendship between Hiccup and Toothless, the dragon, enchanted the public. In 2014, How to Train Your Dragon II was released, and in 2019, a third film came to our screens.
12. The Matrix
After having a strange and repetitive dream, young programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) begins to question reality. After finding out he is part of the Matrix, a computer system which creates the illusion of a real world, he starts to fight against it, gaining certain abilities, including flight.
According to Pablo, in The Matrix (1999), this ability is part of a personal conquest. “The main character accepts his destiny to be the chosen one when he understands reality, and flying becomes one of his characteristics”, he says.