Airplane!

Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Screenplay: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
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
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1980
Country: U.S.
Airplane! Paramount Presents Blu-ray
Airplane

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 small budget, and their previous attempt at lengthy comedy, the “Fistful of Yen” segment in The Kentucky Fried Movie, was its weakest part.

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 pop culture 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 Los Angeles 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, flight attendant 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 his roles as authority figures in the 1950s and ’60s, playing the ridiculously serious Dr. Rumack, gives the role an added edge. His lines would be funny in and of themselves, but they become virtually sublime in their hilarity because Leslie Nielsen is the one 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 (1958–61) 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 from 1959 to 1963) 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 inappropriate jokes, as well as filling the background with all kinds of unexpected sight gags, many of which you might not even notice 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.”). Never has a movie been more in love with homophones and literalism.

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.

Airplane! Paramount Presents Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
  • German Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
  • Isolated music track in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
  • Subtitles?????
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by producer Jon Davison and writer/directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker
  • Isolated score track
  • “Filmmaker Focus: Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker on Airplane!” featurette
  • “Q&A With the Directors of Airplane!” featurette
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateJuly 21, 2020

    COMMENTS
    The image on the Paramount Presents Blu-ray of Airplane! derives from a new 4K remaster supervised by writers/directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker. This is overall a very good presentation of the film, which we is now 40 years old and was relatively low-budget. The image has a definite softness to it and there is clear grain structure throughout, which is great. There appears to have been some minor digital tweaking here and there, but overall the image retains a nice, filmlike appearance. Colors and detail look good throughout, which helps you locate all the small sight gags in the background. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack appears to be the same one that appeared on Paramount’s previous Blu-ray. The dialogue and much of the action is still relegated to the front soundstage, but prolific composer Elmer Bernstein’s perfectly pitched music (it sounds exactly like a disaster-flick score) is expanded nicely into all five speakers (new to this disc is an isolated music track). The sound effects are also given some additional impact, but there is very little in the way of low-frequency effects. The only repeat supplement on the disc is the audio commentary by producer Jon Davison and writer/directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker, which was recorded for the film’s initial DVD release in 2000 and has appeared on pretty much every edition since then. They offer 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 talk 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 rest of the supplements are new to this edition. We get “Filmmaker Focus: Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker on Airplane!,” a 9-minute featurette in which the writers/directors reminisce about the film’s production, and “Q&A With the Directors of Airplane!,” a solid 35-minute featurette that was recorded at a special screening of the film at the Egyptian Theater in January 2020 that was hosted by Grant Monninger, film programmer at the American Cinematheque.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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