Year of Release: 1980
Date Viewed: January 29th, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG
Friend 1: "I just watched a really funny movie. Want to hear about it?"
Friend 2: "A funny movie? What is it?"
Friend 1: "It's a humorous story with actors on a screen. But that's not important now."
Writers/directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker took the ball and ran with it. Thank goodness nobody stopped them. After thirty plus years of existence, Airplane! is still Class 101 on how to make a spoof comedy. The writing team was able to create something completely fresh out of a product that had gone stale, a fine accomplishment in itself.
The movie's story takes place in some sort of alternate dimension where rationality doesn't always apply and everything is taken in it's literal context. Our hero is Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a disgraced former fighter pilot that must deal with past traumas on a daily basis. During a typical day at his cab driving job, he spots his former girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) at the airport. Ted realizes that he cannot face his demons without Elaine's company. He tries to invite her back into his life but she is uninterested. After learning that Elaine is on stewardess duty for an airplane flight bound for Chicago, Ted buys a ticket for that flight so he can have more time to win back her love.
But an unforeseen disaster strikes. The in-flight meals have poisoned nearly the entire crew, including the now comatose pilots. The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing. Finding someone who can not only fly the plane, but also didn't have fish for dinner. That man turns out to be Ted Striker. He has no choice but to face his demons where they are strongest; in the air. If he succeeds, he may also win the heart of his beloved Elaine.
One of the best things about Airplane! and what helps it stand out amongst its peers is how the comedy is not always constant. Most movies like this are afraid to go longer than twenty seconds without a gag. Airplane! stays patient, thereby keeping it hard to predict when the silly moments arrive. There are plenty of them, but the movie is smart enough to keep a "story first" mentality all throughout. I wanted to see Striker and Elaine get back together. In a lesser quality script, I wouldn't care in the least. I would just be itching for more jokes.
The casting is brilliant. Far out brilliant. Actors like Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen had no business being in a movie like this, as they were closely associated with dramatic (often over-dramatic) projects at the time. The script was so unique that the actors probably couldn't figure out how to treat their characters. The dialogue and situations are absurd but everyone acts like it happens every day. So the actors played their roles straight as if they never left the drama genre. It couldn't have worked any better. This thematic contrast between accepted reality and suspended logic is what makes Airplane! such a fun experience. One example is the scene where Ted purchases his plane ticket. The steward offers the option for smoking or non-smoking. Ted chooses smoking and he is handed a ticket that literally has smoke coming from the paper. What purpose this has in the movie's context is anybody's guess, but it's hilarious.
Airplane! was conceived as a humorous nod to the Airport film series, which usually involved lone reluctant ordinary characters called upon to save the day. Robert Hays plays the "Joe Schmo" Ted Striker role so well that it's a little difficult to watch him in other movies without half-expecting him to dance to The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." (One of many classic scenes.)
Not only are the quantity of jokes impressive, so is the variety. We have play on words, funny character names, phrases taken too literally, oblivious caretakers, celebrity cameos, movie references, slapstick, clean humor, dirty humor, cut-away gags, sight gags, repeat gags and enough "blink and you'll miss it" material to warrant repeat viewings. The writers are not afraid to push buttons either. After all, it's not comedy unless someone somewhere is offended.
I was lucky enough to watch this film on the big screen last month when the AMC movie theatre chain gave it a limited run in honor of its thirtieth anniversary. I can honestly say that I laughed harder at this movie than all of my watched comedies from last year combined. I've never been one to insist that the "olden days" were always better. But in the case of movies like Airplane!, it's undeniably true that they just don't make them like they used to.