MH370: The Plane That Disappeared - Was The Documentary Truly Beneficial?

By Sammy Nishihama 

March 12, 2024

Roughly 600,000 people go missing every year, according to Harper Emch of 59 News. Unfortunately, this makes it a fairly common occurrence. What doesn’t happen very often, however, is a plane with 239 passengers going missing without a trace. MH370, a Malaysian airline, disappeared from radar on March 8th, 2014, making last Friday the 10th anniversary of the victims’ presumed deaths. Not only did this event capture locals’ attention, with both interest in the mysterious disappearance and heartbreak for the families, but it also caught the world’s eyes, as one of very few planes that vanished unexpectedly. It attracted so much attention that on the 9th anniversary of the plane’s disappearance, the first episode of MH370: The Plane That Disappeared, a three-episode docuseries, was released, reminding the world of the horrific tragedy. While this documentary helped the world understand the facts behind what happened, it also put families through significantly more heartache than necessary and threw out incredibly groundless theories. So, overall, was this documentary beneficial to the plane’s publicity? 

First, it’s important to understand what the original purpose was when producing this documentary. “The Netflix documentary aims to give audiences an overview of the basic facts surrounding the plane’s disappearance,” says Ethan Zack, an entertainment writer with Looper. Fortunately, this is one thing the documentary did well. The film not only provided viewers with details regarding the plane’s disappearance, including the search grid that was examined in the following weeks, but they also conducted detailed interviews with the families.

Search grid for flight MH370 (photo credit: BBC)

Unfortunately, this is where the series begins to go downhill. “Instead of giving the 239 suffering families and the public at large a true story, Netflix exploited the pain caused by a horrifying tragedy to push lies and conspiracies to boost its viewership,” Alex Berezow of Big Think explains. The families’ interviews were incredibly valuable, allowing the world to get a different perspective from people who experienced the loss firsthand. However, no amount of “gaining perspective” is worth the amount of pain and anguish that the documentary caused. 

Aside from blatantly exploiting the families simply for the audience’s pleasure, the series also caused more harm than good with what it chose to focus on. To someone who has only heard of the incident, the most obvious explanation is that the plane crashed into the ocean, never to be seen again. What this documentary does, however, is dive in-depth into three conspiracies of what could have happened. Additionally, the experts that were brought on screen to back up these theories cannot be considered credible. “The documentary included several scenes in which interview subjects were questioning each others’ motives and credibility, giving the viewer the impression that nobody is trustworthy,” Berezow adds. While this uncertainty did add to the mysterious tone of the documentary, overall it made it difficult to decipher the reliability of the information being presented. 

From hijackers to murder-suicide, to an interception due to unregistered cargo, the documentary elaborates on three of the most groundless theories out there, instead of focusing on accomplishing what its original goals were: creating peace and closure. ”Journalist Jeff Wise suggests it's possible a Russian passenger sneaked into the electronics bay and took control of the plane,” describes Erin Jensen of USA Today. The episode goes on to spotlight Mike Exner, an aviation specialist, who instantly writes off the theories, really making the audience question Wise’s credibility. While some of these theories have some evidence, all of them are far-fetched and harmful, with none being even close to confirmed. 

Overall, MH370: The Plane That Disappeared was not at all beneficial to the incident’s publicity. The series not only caused people to relive the grief they had worked to get through, but it also blamed multiple unrelated groups for the tragedy. The beginning of the first episode was intriguing and informative, and I learned a lot about the incident. However, the rest of the documentary was sickening to watch, as the victims were accused of horrendous acts without any real evidence to back the theories up. It became obvious that this documentary was made with good intentions, yet somehow, no one thought about the effects that its content would have on the families and viewers. “Despite the theories presented, however, viewers may find they’re left with more questions than answers,” Jensen says.