In the 1970s disaster movies were all the rage. In the 1980s they increasingly became rife for self-parody. In retrospect, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker’s Airplane! (1980) kicked off this decade-long affinity to poke fun at just about any and everything. With its ridiculous homages to Universal’s Airport franchise (1970-79), Jaws (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1975) and, most directly, William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954, from whence it derives almost all of its premise), Airplane! remains a self-indulgent mixture of whimsy and wickedness, its waspish jabs, gratuitous violence and even more gratuitous nudity, rank slapstick and at times grotesque burlesque made to order and hopefully tickle our collective funny bones. That much of the film no longer seems nearly as edgy or even as outlandish, but more a series of tepid skits strung together from a vintage episode of Saturday Night Live, particularly in its meandering social commentary, is perhaps a sad indictment on today’s movie culture that has become mired in such inarticulate fluff and silliness, turning a jaundiced eye to virtually any and all aspects of life less deserving of our wink-nudge mentality.
Originally the Zuckers and Abraham could find no one to produce Airplane! Turning to director and friend, John Landis, the trio was encouraged to pursue a movie adaptation of their Kentucky Fried Theater review instead. Only after that movie’s moderate success were they given a green light to write, direct and produce Airplane! Arguably, one does not watch a movie like Airplane! for continuity, although in hindsight there is a shocking lack of it in this 87 min. feature. Jerry Zucker has openly admitted that in conceiving the…uh…story they were pressed to find 87 minutes of comedy to string together; the trio writing in, then tossing out, gags and scenarios, the movie very much linked together by its episodic skit format. The plot is, in fact, so woefully threadbare it can be summed up in a single byline: a shell-shocked war pilot is forced to fly a commercial DC-10 after its crew is befallen by a virulent bout of food poisoning. What comes in between is often crass, tacky, bawdy and brazen; much of it getting the prerequisite thirty-second laugh without straining the audience to commit to anything more – or better – than a stand-up routine run away with the conventional Hollywood narrative.
I can recall seeing Airplane! back when it had its premiere and finding just about everything in it hilarious. You forget, I was ten years old back then. But in hindsight the comedy has dated rather badly, the premise so wafer-thin that not even its all-star cameos can save the movie from becoming cornball and klutzy. Patrick Kennedy’s editing is perfunctory at best. He merely cuts away when the actors have run out of gags. Continuity also seems to be of little to no consequence. When the airplane is in the sky it is plagued by intense fog and a perilous thunderstorm with periodic lightning strikes, both somehow vanishing in the final moments as our hero, Ted Striker (Robert Hays) manages to land the Trans-American DC-10 relatively safely on the runway, despite engine burnout and a complete failure of his landing gear which causes the plane to skid down the runway in a trail of sparks without ever catching fire. I get it: laughs are the point of the story. If you’re looking for anything else besides you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. But the episodic quality is too benign to be accepted at face value. The pauses – nee, breaks - between scenes are so obvious and patched together with pedestrian ennui that one can almost believe the Zuckers and Abrahams had written Airplane! for commercial interrupted television.
The ongoing gags are perhaps the most tedious; a prime example being passengers chronically approached by hippie members of the Religious Consciousness Church (RCC) who attempt to sell daisies for dollars. It’s a slam against Hare Krishna and indeed, the movie takes the farce a step further by having two members of Hare Krishna (David Leisure and John-David Weber) being confronted by the RCC, glibly informing them, “No thanks…we gave at the office.” But the comedy, more readily than not, is unpolished – appealing to the lowest common denominator as in “I can’t believe they just did that!” That has its place in well-parceled out quantities lightly distributed throughout an otherwise clever farce. It also happens to work well in a half-hour sitcom. But stretched to 87 minutes it damn near wears out its welcome. Still, the Zuckers and Abrahams seem to be throwing everything at the screen in an abysmally second rate attempt to see what will stick, the lily not merely gilded by, in fact, dipped in tin masquerading as 24kt platinum from which even the most basic chuckles increasingly appears to be disingenuous rather than feather-weight and amusing.
Stephen Strucker’s Paul Lynd knock-off Johnny shouting obtuse one-liners; Barbara Billingsley’s jive-talking granny trading in on her fondly remembered June Cleaver, Jimmy Walker’s clumsy mechanic falling off the nose of the plane, Lorna Patterson’s guitar-singing stewardess unaware that she has disconnected the intravenous lifeline of a young heart transplant patient, Maureen McGovern spoof of Helen Reddy’s nun from Airport 75; an obligatory nudie shot of an unidentified, though exceptionally well endowed female with bouncing breasts (Kitten Natividad) filling the camera lens for a brief moment after everyone has been told no one is flying the plane; these are glimpses into a rather insidious insincerity that plagues rather than augments Airplane! – the shock value diffused, the jokes more dumb than dynamic.
Airplane! works on the most superficial level as a mindless travesty dedicated to progressively lowering one’s I.Q. from the moment the credits have rolled, or perhaps even before as we hear a pair of loudspeaker attendants segue from providing directions to boarding passengers into having a frank discussion about their extramarital affair and subsequent plans to have an abortion. We meet Ted Striker (Robert Hays); young handsome one-time hot shot pilot who suffers from near-crippling anxiety because of a near-fatal crash during his combat days. Ted’s driving a cab now, and not too successfully either. We also meet Ted’s lover, stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) who emphatically informs him that their romance is over. “What a pisser!” Ted informs the audience, as he abandons his taxi for a seat on Trans-America’s DC-10.
In the meantime we are introduced to Capt. Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) who is perusing the latest edition of Modern Sperm magazine from the ‘whacking material’ section of the sell-through rack in the airport’s gift shop when he receives word that a young girl on his flight must reach Boston to have a heart transplant. The heart, having become impatient, is currently bouncing about the desk of specialist Dr. Brody (Jason Wingreen). Once aboard, we meet the rest of the crew, copilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), head stewardess Randy (Lorna Patterson) and third in charge, Victor Basta (Frank Ashmore). Unable to convince Julie of his love, Ted turns to telling his story virtually to anyone who will listen. In flashback we see how Ted and Julie met, in a seedy wanna-hump-hump bar that Ted describes as “worse than Detroit”. (Aside: I wonder what he would say about the Motor City today?) The bar is miraculously transformed into a discothèque, Ted impressing Julie with his John Travolta dance moves. The mood is broken however by a pair of adult girl scouts (Sandra Lee Gimpel and Paula Marie Moody) who start a brutal bar room brawl, smashing liquor bottles over each other’s heads and rolling around on the floor.
Returning to the plane, we see that the old woman (Ann M. Nelson) whom Ted was telling his story to has since hung herself to avoid having to listen to him. Similarly, an East Indian man (Jesse Emmett) douses himself in gasoline and is prepared to set himself on fire merely to escape Ted when Randy arrives in the nick of time to inquire whether or not Ted knows how to fly a plane. Earlier, Capt. Clarence had invited a young boy, Joey (Rossie Harris) to tour the cockpit. “Ever been in a cockpit before, Joey?” he asks. “Gosh I’ve never been in a plane before,” Joey admits. “Ever see a grown man naked?” Joey further makes a nuisance of himself by identifying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then proceeding to tell him what a slouch he is on the basketball court. None of these moments really go anywhere – the gags about pedophilia done in the poorest of taste and played out for their gut-punching effect before moving on to another equally inane line or pithy comeback. Only now it seems that the Captain, Murdoch and Victor have all been struck down with a coma-inducing bout of food poisoning.
The plane is put on autopilot – an inflatable man who attempts to grope Julie. In the meantime, the airline’s director, Steven McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) orders his best pilot, Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) to report for duty at the airport to help Ted land the plane safely. Kramer and Ted are bitter enemies; some sort of fallout from their years as combat pilots never entirely disclosed. Kramer accidentally forgets to release the transmitter in his hand before telling McCroskey that the situation is virtually hopeless. Ted hears this and momentarily agrees, abandoning the cockpit to return to his seat, content to let the plane crash. In the meantime, Randy leads the passengers in a musical spiritual, while savvy grandma attempts to talk some sense into a pair of jive dudes (Al White and Norman Alexander Gibbs) who are otherwise inarticulate – their conversation supplemented with subtitles.
An eleven year old boy in a three piece suit (David Hollander) attempts to flirt with a young girl (Michelle Stacy) who informs him that she prefers her coffee black…like her men. Oh brother! While in another part of the cabin a seemingly forthright spinster (Norma Meerbaum) suddenly breaks out a mirror to do a few lines of cocaine. After experiencing extreme turbulence Ted returns to the cockpit, takes control of the plane, defies Kramer’s instructions and brings the DC-10 to a successful landing on the runway. As passengers disembark, Ted and Elaine reconcile. Despite the fact that Ted has completely mangled the landing gear, the plane suddenly begins to roll down the runway, piloted by the inflatable auto pilot who has discovered an inflatable Mrs. to accompany him on his private trip into the wild blue yonder.
Airplane! is ridiculous in the extreme and yet, in retrospect, it does not go far enough down that rabbit hole to be truly considered an all-out farce. Again, that’s part – if not all – of its charm, and I must confess to finding certain moments in the movie more than mildly amusing. But the writing as a whole is not all that clever. Being crude is not the same as being funny and Airplane! is far more vulgar than it is humorous; even more often just plain silly rather than wickedly satirical. Robert Hays gets by on his relative congeniality. But Julie Hagerty’s bubble-headed sexpot tends to grate on one’s nerves. There’s no good reason why her Julie should dump Ted at the start only to reconcile with him after he has saved the day. Heroism doesn’t cut it, since Ted is reduced to a sweat-soaked bundle of nerves moments before the plane actually makes its crash landing. The ‘look who’s here’ cameos are fairly juvenile; Peter Graves, Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen being among the most thoughtlessly included in this claptrap. In all, Airplane! is both tepid and turgid. If you’re looking for a stupid comedy to fill up your leisure then, by golly, you have surely found it.
Paramount’s Blu-ray is first rate, as are all the titles Paramount has committed to hi-def. Airplane! was released just prior to their licensing of 600 catalogue titles to Warner Home Video. The 1:85.1 transfer is crisp, exhibiting a dated '80s characteristic with thickness and grain well supported and colors that are faithfully vintage to the indigenous film elements. There are a few brief instances where age-related artifacts are noticeable – particularly during the ‘flashback’ sequences and double-exposures. But otherwise, the film looks marvelous. Ditto for its 5.1 DTS audio that is both crisp and clean. Extras are limited to a meandering audio commentary and a thoroughly annoying ‘long haul’ feature (it certainly is). Activating this feature interrupts the movie with deleted scenes, outtakes and a thoroughly superficial conversation chopped up into soundbytes from the Zuckers, Abrahams, Robert Hays and other members of the cast. Honestly, by activating this alternative track the movie is interrupted so frequently and arbitrarily why couldn’t they have just put all of this material together and come up with a pair of featurettes and/or a documentary? Dumb idea, badly executed, doesn’t enhance your viewing experience in the least.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)