Airplane! (United States, 1980)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Airplane! has not aged well. The fine wine hasn't turned into vinegar but it's not as pleasant to the palate as it once was. Viewed more than 25 years after its initial release, Airplane! retains the capacity to tickle the funny bone, but someone unfamiliar with its history might wonder how critics in 1980 could have labeled it the "funniest movie of the decade." In a way, history has made Airplane! a victim of its own success. The brand of "saturation humor" it employs has become commonplace in comedies, resulting in dilution and overuse. In addition, many of the gags used in Airplane! have been copied/regurgitated/ripped off countless times elsewhere in the last quarter-century, causing them to lose freshness in their original context. Added to that are the topical jokes that are longer topical and the clunkers that aren't any more successful today than they were in 1980. Airplane! still works, but newcomers may wonder what all the fuss was about.

Airplane! was the first of the ZAZ films (named after the writing/directing/producing team of Jerry Zucker-Jim Abrams-David Zucker). After collaborating away from the screen for years, the three men had jointly written John Landis' Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977, but Airplane! represented their first opportunity for complete control. ZAZ would end up dominating '80s comedy, producing the TV series Police Squad and the motion pictures Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun (based on Police Squad). They were not involved in the disappointing Airplane! sequel and claim to have never seen it.

ZAZ may not have introduced saturation humor, but they came as close to perfecting it as any filmmakers. Their brand of comedy involved puns, sight gags, slapstick, and anything else they could think of, all coming at the viewer so fast that when a joke failed, there was another one hot on its heels to replace it. Fully 2/3 of the jokes could fail in a saturation comedy and it would still be described as "a laugh riot" or "laugh out loud funny." In the case of Airplane! during its original 1980 run, a higher percentage than 33% of the humor worked.

Airplane! is a disaster movie parody. During the 1970s, the Airport series of films, based on the Arthur Hailey novel, became reliable box office draws. However, the third and final sequel, Airport '79, was so campy that it was marketed as a comedy. As a result, it wasn't much of a stretch for ZAZ to take things one step further. For Airplane!'s story skeleton, they selected the 1957 air danger story Zero Hour (screenplay by Hailey), but their interpretation had little in common with the earlier "serious" endeavor beyond common plot points.

Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a former fighter pilot who still has nightmares about his failure during a mission in "the war," is on board a domestic flight when the entire cockpit crew is taken ill after eating bad fish. With Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) and his co-pilot, Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar), out for the count, the plane is stuck on auto-pilot. Doctor Rumack (Leslie Nielsen), whose first name is not Shirley, has bad news: if the sick people aren't provided with immediate medical attention, some of them may die. So Ted, the only on with any flying experience, ends up in the pilot's seat, with his girlfriend (who is also a stewardess) Elaine (Julie Hagerty) beside him. On the ground, air traffic control honcho McCrosky (Lloyd Bridges) has called in the big gun: Rex Kramer (Robert Stack), Striker's ex commanding officer, whose job is to bolster his former subordinate's confidence and talk him safely down.

In casting Airplane!, ZAZ went in an unusual direction. They recruited four respected dramatic actors and let them parody their previous work. Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen were not actors one expects to appear in this kind of movie, yet all four excel because they get the joke. Response to Nielsen was so positive that he became a saturation comedy specialist, subverting his previous reputation as he re-invigorated his career.

For the lead roles of Ted and Elaine, ZAZ took a more conventional route, choosing TV staple Robert Hays as the protagonist and newcomer Julie Hagerty as his love interest. Cameos and stunt casting abound, including Kareem Abdul-Jabaar as Murdock, Maureen McGovern as a nun, Ethel Merman as a soldier who thinks he's Ethel Merman, and Al White as a Jive Dude. Kitten Natividad's breasts appear (but not her face). ZAZ had hoped to lure George Kennedy (the hero of the Airport movies) into making an appearance but he balked when Universal expressed displeasure.

Some of Airplane!'s best comedy has retained its effectiveness over the years. There's a great "who's on first" bit in the cockpit between Oveur and Roger. Leslie Nielsen's deadpan "Don't call me Shirley" makes its debut here (it would go on to be a recurring line for Lt. Frank Drebin). Lloyd Bridges remarks that this is a bad day for him to stop smoking/drinking/taking amphetamines/sniffing glue. The Jive Dudes are subtitled. And the auto-pilot blow-up doll enjoys a literal blow job. There are also plenty of background sight gags that often go unnoticed on a first viewing.

It's a credit to ZAZ that, even after all these years and countless imitators, Airplane! retains its comedic backbone. Little about the movie is fresh, but familiarity doesn't ruin the overall effect. As silly and inconsequential as it may have seemed at the time, Airplane! became an important milestone in the genre. The fact that the movie doesn't work as well today as it did in 1980 in no way diminishes its importance in recent motion picture history.

Airplane! (United States, 1980)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 1980-07-02
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1