How do you evaluate a satire of a trend that has disappeared from consciousness? There were a ton of really bad Airport movies in the ’70s. I chalk it up to something in the water that led to a decade of weirdness that culminated in Ricardo Montalban, a midget, and Fantasy Island, but do you know anyone who has rented one of those disasters lately. Sure, they were dumb. Sure, they were downright absurd and over dramatic, but they also seem to be dead. Now it almost seems the equivalent of mocking the movie Cabin Boy with the combined efforts of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. There just doesn’t seem to be that much interest in seeing in Air Traffic Controllers talking down nervous substitute pilots these days. So is “Airplane!” still funny and relevant?
Probably, even though it was supposed to make light of those self important maxi-dramas, I would imagine that even more people fly on a regular basis now than in 1980. Stand up comedians love to make fun of airports, but that’s probably because they spend like 50% of there time there flying from gig to gig. George Carlin has been riffing on air travel for over twenty years now and apparently still believes there is marrow left to ground there. Every once in a while someone fun happens there like Diana Ross getting manhandled or Whitney Houston running from a Hawaiian drug bust. Chances are that anyplace where people have a finite chance of dying while escaping National borders will remain fodder for theatrical mayhem. I’m not saying that Air Force One is anywhere near as absurd as The Concord: Airport ’79, but there’s still enough symmetry to make this near classic somewhat vital. Besides the film manages to mock just about any other movie it can think of from Saturday Night Fever to believe it or not From Here to Eternity. I think they even manage to make fun of that Kevin Bacon African basketball movie, The Air Up There at least a decade before it came out, and don’t the words Kevin Bacon African basketball movie make you happy to be alive in our oh too serious world?
The makers of Airplane breached a new level for cinema of the silly. Mel Brooks had already established that just about anything was worth a laugh, but Jim Abrahams, David, and Jerry Zucker, decided to launch everything in the arsenal. With Airplane it’s not necessarily about the quality of the gags, it really about the numbers. The airplane trio’s theory of humor apparently has always been the more the better, and “we might make you groan, but we’ll get to you through sheer doggedness and breakneck effort. Personally, if you have Barbara Billingsley, Beaver Cleaver’s aged mom, translating jive in a moment of truth than I’m on board.
Airplane begs the following question. If you hire the two most wooden actors in the world like say Robert Hays and Julie Haggerty, and instruct them to act woodenly, is their woodenness indication of their ability to act? Judging from their subsequent track record I doubt it, but Leslie Nielsen seemed to take notice and made himself the screen’s most amusing bad actor since the Batman prime of Adam West.
Special notice must be given to Peter Graves who manages to utter the three most creepy questions in the history of man to an innocent kid. “Ever seen a grown man naked?”, “Do you like gladiator films?”, and of course the perennial favorite “Have you ever been in a Turkish Prison?” Way to go Peter!
There are approximately seven hundred thousand other sight gags, puns, and images of sheer lunacy. These include but aren’t limited to Kareem Abdul Jabbar with hair, silly Hari Krishna, the Red Zone – White Zone – You want me to have the abortion verbal instructions, Vicki from the Love Boat needing a heart transplant, Modern Sperm Magazine, and an old woman hanging herself before Robert Hays can finish relating the details of his boring desperate life. If you get half of the jokes flung your way, and laugh at half of those you’re still in much better shape than the very best episode of Three’s Company. If you truly study this movie and love it all, you probably haven’t done much with your life, but at least you’re smiling.