Netflix's Rebecca is the perfect airplane movie

Why you should save this remake for whenever we're allowed to fly again

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Netflix)

Airplane movies are a genre unto themselves. They need to hit the sweet spot of being engaging enough to keep your mind off the fact that you're in a metal tube hurtling through the lower stratosphere, but also light enough to not exacerbate the stress of traveling. Something you can potentially doze off during, but be able to pick up again when the flight attendant comes by with pretzels. Something a little bit exotic, a little bit romantic, a little bit mysterious, in the spirit of travel! And certainly something that doesn't involve aviation disasters.

Assuming we're ever able to fly again, I humbly propose that Ben Wheatley's remake of Rebecca, out on Netflix on Wednesday, is the ideal choice for in-flight entertainment. It is so utterly an "airplane movie" in every respect that I almost recommend against watching it if you're on the ground. Bearing little resemblance to the gothic phantasmagoria of author Daphne du Maurier's original, or the noirish intrigue of Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 Academy Award winner, Wheatley's Rebecca is trashy and fun to look at, even if it might not stick with you beyond the tarmac.

When Du Maurier wrote Rebecca in 1938, she didn't see her story — about an unnamed young woman who leaves her job as a lady's companion to impulsively marry the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter and get swept back to his secret-filled seaside estate of Manderley — as being a romance. It was much more of a moody and grim tale of suspense, in which the new Mrs. de Winter comes to be haunted by the specter of her predecessor, the too-good-to-be-true first wife Rebecca, whose mark lingers on every inch of the enormous home the heroine is woefully unprepared to run on her own. With her own husband distant, Mrs. de Winter is further alienated in her new home by the manipulative and sour housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who has always been the marquee role in the story despite not being its protagonist (Judith Anderson played the part with suggestive eroticism in Hitchcock's version; Kristin Scott Thomas capably takes the reins in Wheatley's). "It's a bit on the gloomy side," Du Maurier cautioned her publisher, unaware that the novel was about to be a runaway hit. She added, "the ending is a bit brief and a bit grim."

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In every respect, Wheatley's Rebecca breaks from how Du Maurier perceived her story. It is neither on the gloomy side, nor is its ending brief or grim (I'll preserve the twist for first-time viewers, although note that there is a shipwreck, so YMMV if you decide to watch on a boat instead). Rather, Wheatley delivers Rebecca by way of grocery store romance novel: A hunky Armie Hammer plays our no-longer-quite-so-believably brooding and distant Maxim, and current international tabloid fixture Lily James is our nameless ingénue. Still, the 2020 Rebecca does not seem preoccupied with fidelity to the novel in that regard; Maxim and his soon-to-be-new-wife roll around on the beach in Monaco before heading back to Manderley in this version (never mind that "impotence abounds in a good Du Maurier yarn," to quote Jezebel), and there's enough lens flare all around to make certain this is supposed to be dreamy, rather than incrementally dreadful.

In the confines of a pressurized cabin that makes you prone to being overly emotional, it might be easy to miss that Rebecca is a deeply weird story to adapt as a conventional romance once you start thinking about it. Watching the movie with one eye on the slow progression of the beverage cart toward your seat in 39D, you might likewise generously miss the film's slapdash production and costuming choices; a number of critics, for example, have taken issue with the fact that Hammer's de Winter wears the same yellow suit on back-to-back days, a faux pas unimaginable for the character. Earthbound viewers might also find Rebecca's divergences bewildering if not downright offensive, the work of "ill-equipped filmmakers, who mistook the source material and original adaptation as mere IP to be rebooted, an algorithmic model to be fulfilled, rather than an artful tale of delicious, sexual hunger," as Vulture's Angelica Jade Bastién wrote. Following along on your thumbprint-smudged iPad screen, however, you might be thankful there is nothing artful to miss.

Wheatley's Rebecca is just tense enough to hold your attention when there's nothing better to do, just romantic enough to be escapist while not having quite enough chemistry to upstage your own travel plans, and just familiar enough that nodding off for a moment or two likely won't mean missing any major plot details, which unfold somewhat laboriously at its end. Best of all, it might be just memorable enough to prompt some viewers to go on to pick up a copy of Du Maurier's novel from the local bookshop once they land, while avoiding any missteps so unforgivable as to "ruin" the original.

Still, the differences between the new Rebecca and its predecessors are like the differences between the second Mrs. De Winter and the first: The originals are luminous and unforgettable, while this latest is an average, if earnest, substitute. But if Du Maurier's story teaches us anything, it's not to dismiss a newcomer on comparison alone. Wheatley's Rebecca might not be able to live up to the ghosts of its past, but at 38,000 feet, you'd be hard pressed to find a better companion.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.