‘MH370’ review: Netflix doc ‘The Plane That Disappeared’ weighs theories about Malaysian jet’s fate

Someone out there knows what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Or maybe her secrets are buried forever, lost along with the 239 passengers who were aboard that flight in 2014 – a flight whose whereabouts remain a mystery and are the basis for some wild yet not entirely despicable conspiracy theories.

Was it a hijack? A case of mass murder/pilot suicide? A terrible accident? A meteorite? An act of war?

These are some of the theories explored in the three-part Netflix documentary series “MH370: The Plane That Disappeared,” a riveting and fact-based work that occasionally devolves into tabloid, unmonitored chatroom level when it gives voice to a handful from people whose theories are dubious at best. All in all, director Louise Malkinson and executive producers Sam Maynard and Fiona Stourton do a good job laying out the familiar details using archival footage, a few obligatory dramatic re-creations, and some hugely useful graphics, while maintaining a healthy skepticism about some of the more outlandish hypotheses put forward over the past nine years.

‘MH370: the plane that disappeared’

Has the mystery been solved? As producer Harry Hewland says in the press materials, “We knew from the start that if thousands of tech-savvy aviation experts hadn’t found an answer, what hope did a bunch of TV producers have?” What “MH370” succeeds in is to lay out three main theories and leave it to the viewer to determine which is the most plausible.

Each episode focuses on one primary theory while also exploring a few other possibilities, as we hear from aviation experts, journalists, aviation officials and bereaved families, whose grief has been compounded by the Malaysian government’s incompetence and arrogance, and lack of closure.

Here’s what we know for sure: at 12:14 p.m., Flight 370 departs from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on a redeye to Beijing Capital International Airport. When the plane is about to leave Malaysian airspace and communications will be handed over to the control tower in Vietnam, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah tells the tower, “Uh, goodnight Malaysian 370” in a matter-of-fact tone. About 90 seconds later, the plane darkens electronically, disappears from radar, and is never heard from again.

  • Episode one, titled “The pilot,” investigates the theory that Zaharie Ahmad Shah deliberately crashed the plane into the Indian Ocean. Aviation journalist Jeff Wise says, “Maybe he’s saying to the copilot, ‘Hey buddy, why don’t you go back and get me something,'” after which the pilot locked the door and turned off all the electronics. “Maybe he’s starting to depressurize the cabin…” Maybe. Maybe. But why? No plausible explanation is ever given, no evidence is ever provided.
  • Episode two, “The Hijacking,” investigates the possibility that a small group of Russian passengers gained access to the electronics room, disabled equipment and somehow gained control of the plane, which eventually ended up in Kazakhstan. Aviation expert Mike Exner says, “It’s all fantasy-based, not reality.”
  • In episode three, “The Interception,” a French journalist puts forward the hypothesis that there was suspicious and problematic cargo on board the plane and that the U.S. military had no choice but to shut down the plane to prevent that sensitive cargo from reaching China, either through a missile strike or by a mid-air collision.

I know. It all sounds crazy. And to the credit of the filmmakers, they are, for the most part, as skeptical as we are. Throughout the series, we continue to see news reports about the latest shocking or dramatic twist in the ongoing investigation. At one point, it seems almost certain that, contrary to the original flight path that would have seen the plane crash into the South China Sea, radar data indicates that it took a sharp left turn and ended up in the Indian Ocean. Enter a “Blaine Gibson, Adventurer” as the images identify him, a world traveler who tells us he was on a Facebook group asking oceanographers where he might find wreckage debris. “And they said, ‘There will be debris on the Mozambique Channel on the coast of Mozambique.’ … So I went to Vilanculos, a city on the Mozambique Canal, and I asked people if they had seen any debris.”

In 2018, Blaine Gibson (right) and Jacquita Gomes, the wife of a man who was lost on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, show a piece of debris believed to be from the missing plane.

Tree! The next thing we see is footage of Gibson in sandals, khakis and a T-shirt, finding small pieces of debris within 20 minutes of his arrival. Well THAT was easy. Meanwhile, a woman in Florida tells us, “My hobby is photography, so I have an eye for detail…” and is convinced that she found images of the wreck on the original South China Sea search site.

So many of the theories we see explored in “MH370: The Plane That Disappeared” are bizarre, not fully formed, hard to believe. And yet, and yet… a plane with some 239 souls took off from Malaysia in the middle of the night about nine years ago, and as if we’ve landed in a real nightmare, straight out of ‘The Twilight Zone’, we know something bizarre and tragic happened.

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