Airplane! (1980)
Airplane! (1980)

Genre: Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 28 min.

Release Date: July 2nd, 1980 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker Actors: Julie Hagerty, Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lorna Patterson, Lloyd Bridges, Frank Ashmore, Jonathan Banks, Barbara Billingsley, Lee Bryant




rom the opening seconds that spoof “Jaws,” substituting the great white shark for an airplane leaping from the clouds, it’s evident that this comedy isn’t going to conform to any known standard of parody. Indeed, as suspenseful music by Elmer Bernstein kicks in, it’s suggested that something sinister might be brewing from numerous disparate parties crowding into an airport, providing yet another sharp contrast to the looming lunacy. Even one of the main plot points, involving flight attendant Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) and her flagging relationship with Ted Striker (Robert Hays), is interrupted by a breaking of the fourth wall just as the tone appears modestly sincere.

The central subject, Trans American Flight 209 to Chicago, carries an eclectic mix of passengers – from a girl in need of a heart transplant to lovesick youngsters to religious figures to the elderly to impromptu fencers to a jive-talkin’ duo. And, of course, there’s the perverse captain (Peter Graves) and his copilot Roger, who looks suspiciously like a famous basketball player. As more and more passengers turn up, it’s clear that no race, age group, or creed is safe from hearty lampooning.

With its structure based around a ceaseless onslaught of related and unrelated gags, some cutting away for a flashback just to poke fun at other iconic movie moments, “Airplane!” doesn’t concern itself too much with a plot. Instead, the nonstop gimmicks aim to provoke continual laughs; with its excessive blitz of nonsense, lesser jokes might slip by, but the big ones land in spectacular ways. Subtler references or spins on contemporary properties (like commercials or other notions that would be most potent in the late ’70s) pop up frequently as well. And the entire, irreverent orchestration is admirably consistent.

Meanwhile, the film doesn’t shy away from slapstick, tongue-twisting conversations, unexpectedly literal interpretations of idioms and other common phrases, internal monologues, and even song-and-dance numbers. The non-sequitur bits, the outrageous sound effects, and the hysterical one-liners keep coming – and many of them are perfectly ridiculous. Even scenes that would otherwise be serious are disrupted by the absurd; potential tension is routinely tossed aside in favor of additional silliness, while the disregard for continuity and sensibility is always immoderate.

And a lot of this happens before Leslie Nielsen makes his appearance as the exceptionally straight-faced, utterly foolish doctor (“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”) – a role so popular that he would continue to play variations of it for years to come. Nielsen’s actions and dialogue, along with so many of the jokes, would become unforgettable and emblematic of the film itself – from the inflatable automatic pilot, to an Ethel Merman cameo, to suicidal aisle companions, to Robert Stack as the captain in the dispatch office who must guide the plane to safety via radio instructions. Part of what makes this all so effective is how straight the actors play their parts; in the face of unending fatuousness, the cast remains earnestly aboveboard, which only heightens the picture’s success. Even by the exciting conclusion, the shenanigans don’t stop; every extra second seems to accommodate another shot of ludicrousness. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10