Should I Watch..? 'Airplane!'
What's the big deal?
Airplane! is a disaster parody film released in 1980 and is a comedic re-make of the 1957 film Zero Hour!. The film borrows dialogue and plot wholesale from the original and concerns the efforts of war veteran Ted Striker to win back the love of his life Elaine on board a doomed airliner. However, the film has become synonymous with fast-paced slapstick, surreal humour as well as visual puns and verbal gags. It also gave a new lease of life to actors previously known for their dramatic roles - cast members Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen found their careers reinvigorated and subsequently began to focus more on comedy than before. The film was written and directed by brothers David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, collectively known as ZAZ. Released to universal acclaim from critics, the film frequently tops polls among critics for the funniest film ever made.
What's it about?
Former fighter pilot Ted Striker now works as a taxi driver, unable to shake the trauma he endured during the war and now has a pathological fear of flying. When his girlfriend and airline stewardess Elaine Dickinson leaves him, Ted is determined to win her back and reluctantly boards the flight she is working on - a night flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Despite his efforts, Elaine is having none of it and rebukes him.
Later on in the flight, many passengers and crew fall ill due to suspected food poisoning including the captain Clarence Oveur and co-pilot Roger Murdock. While Dr Rumack sees to the ever-increasing numbers of patients, Elaine realises that Ted is the only one on board who can safely land the plane. But in stormy conditions, Ted must be talked in by Chicago's tower control supervisor Steve McCroskey and Ted's former commanding officer, Captain Rex Kramer. Can Ted conquer his demons? Can Dr Rumack save the lives of those taken ill? And can the inflatable autopilot steady the flight before they reach Chicago?
Capt. Clarence Oveur
Capt. Rex Kramer
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker
Release Date (UK)
29th August, 1980
12A (2013 re-release)
What's to like?
For anyone thinking that the increasingly creaky Scary Movie series is as good as it gets, this movie is a staggering wake-up call. Arguably the first spoof film to become synonymous with the genre, Airplane! defined the characteristics of what makes a truly great comedy with endless sight gags, jokes and cast members playing the film as straight as possible. None of the principal cast were really known for playing comedic roles but found themselves shackled to the film's success and style for many years. Nielsen discovered a new lease of life and would go on to become far more successful as a comic actor than a serious one with brilliant turns in the likes of The Naked Gun. His character is wonderfully insane and seemingly normal amid the chaos around him.
Even without such a gifted cast, the film remains amazingly funny so long after its initial release. It's delightfully stupid and childish but also retains a daring streak which pushes the boundaries of taste somewhat such as the two black passengers who need to be translated by Barbara Billingsley and Graves' slightly paedophilic Captain Oveur. But the movie's unceasing assault on your funny bone means that you don't feel uncomfortable for long with lines of dialogue that have since become iconic and endlessly quotable. If you want a film that makes you laugh then this is the one you need because it almost certainly will.
- The film marks the final appearance of legendary musical star Ethel Merman who plays a shell-shocked Lieutenant Hurwitz who is convinced that he is Ethel Merman, leaping out of bed in song before orderlies restrain him.
- The two announcers heard at the airport arguing about the red and white zones were the actual people who recorded the real-life announcements at Los Angeles International Airport. They were also married in real life.
- Although based on the film Zero Hour!, the film was designed to spoof Airport 1975 which had a stewardess being forced to fly after the two pilots become incapacitated, a girl on board in need of a kidney transplant and even a singing nun - all of which feature in this movie.
What's not to like?
No film is perfect and if I'm being picky then the film does have a couple of minor flaws. With such an established cast around them, relative unknowns Hays and Hagerty don't really convince as the star-crossed lovers leading the film. They give the movie a slight made-for-TV feel along with the occasionally suspect effects and dated look. Not to say that they aren't funny because they are but compared to their co-stars playing against type, they feel somewhat underwhelming. While never underwhelming, the hyperactive and ultra-camp Stucker also feels out-of-place as the air traffic control worker alongside Bridge's substance-abusing supervisor. His comic delivery is fine but he is the only cast member not playing the film straight so he doesn't really work as well as he should.
But the biggest problem the film has is just how closely spoof films have followed it, usually with a lack of success. After the success of The Naked Gun, parody movies slowly tailed off with less ideas and more attempts to simply copy the formula ZAZ had laid out with this film. Latter spoofs like Hot Shots!, Dracula: Dead And Loving It and the aforementioned Scary Movie retain many features of Airplane! such as the cast playing straight, the ridiculous sight gags and the ripping off of other more serious films. But there's little magic in these spiritual successors - even the actual sequel to this movie, Airplane II: The Sequel, didn't fair too well with critics. Lightning rarely strikes twice and this film is a direct hit.
Should I Watch It?
It might be a little less family friendly than the likes of The Naked Gun but Airplane! remains a high quality, exceptionally funny film that will strike a chord with almost all viewers. It's daring, immature, silly and utterly insane but it's the perfect antidote to ridiculous disaster movies that take themselves far too seriously. I defy anyone to not laugh at some point during this film. This film stands alone at the top of parody movies and remains the benchmark after all these years.
Great For: comedy fans, people who ordered the chicken.
Not So Great For: in-flight movies, people who ordered the fish.
What Else Should I Watch?
As I've already hinted, Airplane II: The Sequel failed to match the expectations of fans eager for another slice of surreal humour. Even roping in the likes of Rip Torn, William Shatner and Sonny Bono doesn't save the film from being a lame reheating of ideas. Other parody spoofs from the early-to-mid Eighties include the better-than-expected Top Secret! and the enjoyable Mel Brooks swipe at certain popular sci-fi epics, Spaceballs.
Nielsen's career underwent a complete renaissance after Airplane! with appearances in countless spoofs of varying quality Undoubtedly the best of these was the spin-off from ZAZ TV comedy Police Squad!, The Naked Gun. Sparking a trilogy of movies, the films follow bumbling LAPD officer Frank Drebin who gets involved with a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II, a mad bomber targeting a leading advocate for renewable energy and a family of crooks attempting to blow up the Academy Awards. The films gets weaker as the series goes on but mostly remain better than other Nielsen efforts like Spy Hard and Wrongfully Accused.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox