WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Boarding an airliner bound for Chicago in a bid to salvage his relationship with stewardess Elaine, troubled fighter pilot Ted Striker finds himself the centre of attention when food poisoning strikes down the passengers and crew of the busy flight. With dozens of lives in his hands, Ted must take on advice from all sides and ignore his personal demons to bring the plane down safely.
It’s zero hour for the relationship of Trans American stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) and her beau Ted Striker (Robert Hays). Although their romance blossomed in the unlikeliest of places, Elaine can no longer cope with Ted’s guilt over a failed bombing mission during ‘the war’, which has given him a peculiar drinking problem and a facility for telling the most depressing stories. In desperation, Ted boards Elaine’s flight to Chicago, piloted by Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) and Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and carrying a girl needing an urgent heart transplant, though not the misguided help of Lorna Patterson’s attendant Randy. Although Ted’s pleas fall on Elaine’s deaf ears, events overtake them both when the whole flight crew – and many of the passengers – are taken ill by a dodgy fish course. Striker’s the only passenger who can bring the crate down, or so Doctor Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) tells him; the question is, can dispatcher Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) and abrasive Captain Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) help Ted to land the plane in thick fog, or is he destined to crash and burn along with everyone else on the flight?
Like heavy metal, the question of who “invented” the parody film can be debated endlessly (who, for example, would credit that The Big Bus predates this movie?), but there can be little argument that with Airplane!, the Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams team perfect the formula they toyed with in Kentucky Fried Movie. There are two keys to the film’s success: firstly, the lead actors play their parts absolutely straight, established stars such as Graves, Nielsen and Bridges lending weight to a hackneyed B-movie disaster plot; Hays’ deadpan face and Hagerty’s ditzy delivery contribute immensely too, and their efforts are bolstered by the overripe dramatics of Elmer Bernstein’s score. Secondly, the naughty, ridiculous, surreal and/or silly jokes punctuating the film every few seconds are – for the most part – very, very good. The disconnect between the solemn attitude of the actors and the delirious silliness of what they say and what happens around them makes Airplane! a complete joy to watch: there’s the bickering airport announcers, the ‘outing’ of Roger Murdock’s identity, the plethora of visual jokes (despite watching the film a dozen or more times, the bouncing heart at the Mayo Clinic had always distracted me from the jars lining the walls until this viewing), or the classic dialogue (take your pick – the famous ‘Headquarters? What is it?’; ‘Surely you can’t be serious?’; or the exchange between Ted and an elderly passenger as they take their seats: ‘Nervous?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘First time?’ ‘No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.’) While there are one or two movie spoofs (Saturday Night Fever, From Here to Eternity) and a few cameos (Ethel Merman’s is inspired), the film remains focused and refuses (largely) to be indulgent or self-consciously wacky.
If I am to do my job properly, I must point out a few things that don’t work so well: the fighting girl guides at the bar, Lee Terri’s Mrs Oveur, the rear projection gag, and – just a personal thing – the character of Rex Kramer (I know nothing of Robert Stack’s other work, which may be instructive). Furthermore, as a youngster I enjoyed Stephen Stucker’s camp balletics; now, they seem out of context, though his response to the line ‘What can you make out of this?’ will always stay with me. In general, the jokes become less successful as the plot progresses and the demands of comedy rub up against the drama of the plane’s descent. On the other hand, with the sheer number of jokes the writers lob at the screen, it’s frankly amazing how few fall short of their mark, especially at over thirty years’ distance.
Airplane! spawned a vastly inferior sequel, is undoubtedly as influenced as it was influential, and is indirectly responsible for utter rubbish like Date Movie and Scary Movie 3 (where David Zucker, to his eternal shame, made Leslie Nielsen repeat old lines from this film). But I could watch a thousand comedies and not laugh so much as I do at the twenty seconds where a queue of people take turns to ‘calm down’ a hysterical passenger, or poorly Lisa’s reaction to Randy’s over-enthusiastic guitar-playing, or the woman struggling to apply make-up, or…you get the picture. There are many cleverer comedies than this one, but very few which hit your funny bone so hard, so often. I challenge you not to enjoy it!