Screenplay : Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1980
Stars : Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson), Lloyd Bridges (Steve McCroskey), Leslie Nielsen (Doctor Rumack), Peter Graves (Capt. Clarence Oveur), Robert Stack (Captain Rex Kramer), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Roger Murdoch), Lorna Patterson (Randy), Stephen Stucker (Johnny)
Having already honed and perfected their unique brand of guerilla comedy in their long-running Kentucky Fried Theater and 1977's The Kentucky Fried Movie (which was directed by John Landis), it was finally time for the ZAZ team (brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their childhood friend Jim Abrahams) to make their own feature-length movie. The possibility of pulling it off seemed slim, as they were working with a slim budget, and their previous attempt at lengthy comedy, the "Fistful of Yen" segment in The Kentucky Fried Movie, was the weakest part of that movie.
Yet, with Airplane! they scored a huge success. An ingenuous parody of high-concept disaster movies like Zero Hour (1957), Airport (1970), Terror in the Sky (1971), and Airport 1975 (1975), Airplane! is a nonstop assault of sight gags, silly verbal puns, and movie references. Although this kind of comedy has become de rigueur since then, its over-the-top gusto was something entirely new in 1980, and audiences ate it up.
The plotline is typical of airline disaster movies: A flight from L.A. to Chicago, populated with an eclectic mix of American types, seems destined for tragedy when food poisoning brings half of the passengers to the brink of death, including the two pilots and the navigator. In a hokey, melodramatic turn, one of the passengers, Ted Striker (Robert Hays), is a war pilot who has not been able to get over a failed mission that killed his entire squadron. He is on the plane because he followed his girlfriend, stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), who is trying to leave him after becoming fed up with his lack of responsibility and inability to hold a job.
The key to Airplane!'s success is the ways Abrahams, Zucker, and Zucker work within the accepted boundaries of the disaster genre to create the laughs. Some of the scenes are played ludicrously straight, such as the big confrontation scene between Ted and Elaine in the airport at the beginning of the film in which she explains her inability to stay with him and he keeps pleading that he can change while the tragic, romantic music swells in the background. The dialogue is right out of any Irwin Allen Grand Hotel-like disaster flick, but the ZAZ team give it their unique spin by tacking on an unexpected punchline.
They pull a real coup by getting well-known actors to fill the various roles, which gives the movie a legitimate feel, but also works comedically. Thus, seeing Leslie Nielsen, then a serious actor known mainly for playing authority figures in the '50s and '60s, playing the ridiculously serious Dr. Rumack, gives the role an added edge. His lines are funny, but they're funnier because it's Leslie Nielsen delivering them in his deadpan style.
The same goes for Peter Graves, who is described in Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film as having "made a long career out of being stolidly dignified and competent." As Captain Clarence Oveur, he is exactly the opposite, especially as he is given to saying the most incredibly inappropriate things to children. Lloyd Bridges, trading on his tough-guy persona in Westerns and the TV series Sea Hunt plays the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, amphetamine-taking, glue-sniffing airport controller Steve McCroskey to grizzled perfection. However, perhaps best of all is the eternally serious and grave-voiced Robert Stack (best known for playing Eliot Ness in the TV series The Untouchables) as Captain Rex Kramer, one of Striker's old war pilots who is brought in to help him land the plane.
Airplane! grabs you from the opening moments and doesn't let up for 90 minutes. The best jokes come from the way the ZAZ team takes the familiar and twists it just enough to become outrageous. They seem especially giddy in using children and elderly women as the butt of jokes, as well as filling the background with all kinds of unexpected sight gags, many of which you don't pick up without multiple viewings. They turn airport recordings about parking zones into a battle over abortion, they manage to work Ethel Merman into a joke inside a mental institution, and they exploit language conventions to the nth degree by constantly allowing for double meanings and unexpected interpretations whenever a character opens his or her mouth (the best is, of course: "Surely, you can't be serious." "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.").
As unlikely as it was, Airplane! became a huge hit and is now considered a comedy classic (the American Film Institute listed it in the top 10 of their 100 best comedies). Many have tried to emulate its brand of humor, including several later attempts by various members of the ZAZ team, but none of them have quite reached Airplane!'s level.
This, of course, includes the 1982 sequel, aptly titled Airplane II: The Sequel. None of the ZAZ team were associated, even as producers. Rather, first-time writer/director Ken Finkleman took control, crafting a funny, but largely redundant movie that borrows about fifty percent of its jokes from the first movie, recycling them quite literally. Hays and Hagerty return to their roles as Striker and Elaine, and the plot is basically run through a second time, except with a science fiction twist that allows for some amusing parodies of Star Wars (1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
This time around, it's not an airplane that is in trouble, but the first lunar shuttle taking people to a new base on the moon. Obviously, this story takes place some two decades after the events in Airpane!, but of course no one has aged. Peter Graves returns as Captain Oveur, and rather than he and his crew getting food poisoning, they are either ejected from the shuttle or gassed by R.O.K., the ship's malfunctioning computer that sounds an awful lot like H.A.L. from 2001 (Finkleman names one of the co-pilots Dave just so R.O.K. can ask at one point, "What are you doing, Dave?").
Finkleman, whose writing credits include the awful Grease 2 (1982) and the even more awful Madonna screwball comedy Who's That Girl? (1987), does a good job following in the ZAZ footsteps, even if he doesn't have much that is new to offer. The only notable moments involve his more abstract sense of bizarre comedy, such as when Striker escapes from a mental institution and runs past a man dressed in a full suit with a microphone, standing in a spotlight singing the theme song to The Love Boat. Why? Why not.
Airplane II: The Sequel has its share of belly laughs, even when William Shatner comes in late in the movie and hams it up in a similar role to the one Robert Stack played. The movie as a whole has a quick, thrown-together feel, and when it works, it works largely on our fond memories of the first movie.
|Airplane! and Airplane II: The Sequel DVDs|
|Airplane and Airplane II: The Sequel are sold as separate DVDs, each with a SRP of $29.99.|
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural (French)
Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural (English, French)
Audio commentary by producer Jon Davidson and writer/directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker
Original theatrical trailer
|Presented for the first time on home video in their original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, this new anamorphic transfers for both Airplane! and Airplane II look very good. Airplane! was a fairly low-budget film, and it shows from time to time in the image quality, which is a bit soft. However, detail level is still high (which helps you find all the sight gags in the background), and colors looks strong, with good saturation and natural flesh tones. There is a slight bit of graininess from time to time, especially in the night scenes. However, overall this is an excellent transfer of a 20-year-old movie. Airplane II has a slightly better picture that is a little bit sharper overall.|
|Airplane!'s original monaural soundtrack has been given the Dolby Digital 5.1. treatment to good effect. The dialogue and much of the action is still relegated to the front soundstage, but Elmer Bernstein's perfectly pitched music (it sounds exactly like a disaster-flick score) is expanded nicely into all five speakers. The sound effects are also given some additional impact, but there is very little in the way of low-frequency effects. Airplane II maintains its original one-channel mono, but it still sounds excellent.|
|The Airplane! DVD features a running audio commentary with producer Jon Davidson and writer/directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. If you've heard their commentaries on the Naked Gun DVDs, you know roughly what to expect: a laid-back, enjoyable, and sometimes frenetic group discussion that often devolves into all four of them trying to talk over each other. Listening to them discuss the movie is often as funny as the movie itself. They make a lot of jokes, feeling no shame in pointing out the movie's many gaffes and less-than-stellar special effects. The informative aspect of the commentary is somewhat limited, but they give some nice anecdotes about the production (notable is their insistence that their perfect parody of From Here to Eternity's famous beach love scene was not intended). The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen. |
The Airplane II DVD has no supplements.
�2000 James Kendrick