Summer Movie Showdown: "Airplane!" Review

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Starring Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty and Peter Graves, an airplane crew takes ill. The only person capable of landing the plane is an ex-pilot afraid to fly.
3.5

Summer Movie Showdown: "Airplane!" Review

-- Rating: PG (Profanity, sexual situations, nudity)
Length: 88 minutes
Release Date: July 2, 1980
Directed by: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Genre: Comedy

In the comedy classic "Airplane!," Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is a former military pilot who's still haunted by a wartime mission he was part of that was a big failure. He loves Elaine (Julie Hagerty), an airline stewardess who has broken up with him. He has a ticket on the next flight she'll be working on, which offers Ted a chance to try to convince her they belong together. Before the lovesick man can convince her, he must survive a doomed flight with an improbably funny group of people on board, including a very sick child with an IV in her arm, a guitar-playing nun, and a soldier who thinks he's Ethel Merman.

Things seem to be going rather smoothly on the flight, until several people begin to take ill after eating their meals. It turns out something is wrong with the seafood on board, so everyone who had the fish dinner becomes sick, including the pilot, Captain Oveur (Peter Graves), and copilot, Roger (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). They pass out, and the only person on board with any flight experience is Ted, who begins to sweat profusely in one of the better sight gags in the film. To add more pressure, Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen), informs him everyone who ate the fish is so gravely ill that they'll die if he doesn't find a way to get them to the hospital.

What follows after the initial setup is over an hour of hilarious high jinks and sight gags that come at a very rapid pace, one after another. There are plenty of deadpan jokes to go around, with Nielsen in particular uttering one of the most famous lines from the very quotable film, "don't call me Shirley!" There are so many of these types of lines and background sight gags that viewers may want to watch the film twice just to make sure they got them all. As the film wraps up, the initial story about the dying passengers is resolved, with Ted and Elaine becoming closer after going through the flight ordeal together. Will these two star-crossed lovers get back together, or will the stress of what they've been through cause them to break up for good?

Many dramas that came out in the 1970s took themselves very seriously, including "Airport," the film that "Airplane!" spoofs. "Airport" is actually a very good movie in its own right, but it was a standout in a series of films that had become very melodramatic at the time. All the melodrama made the genre ripe for parody, and "Airplane!" is one of the best spoof movies of all time. Part of its genius is the directors cast dramatic actors instead of comedians, allowing them to stretch their acting muscles. In the case of Nielsen, the chance to do comedy after years of drama not only reinvigorated his stalled career, it also allowed him to become something of a spoof specialist for the rest of his acting days.

The funniest thing about the film is the characters all take themselves very seriously, even as they say some very ridiculous and hilarious things. In so many comedies, the audience can almost see the joke coming because the actor delivers it with a wink. In "Airplane!," the jokes come with straight faces and grave seriousness, which just makes them all the more funny. Writers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker also made the genius move of putting in comedy bits that didn't even need a line or an actor's delivery to make them funny. For example, a flashback scene in which Elaine and Ted meet and fall in love is full of physical comedy that it doesn't need a single word uttered to bring the laughs. The scene also uses disco music from the 1970s to add comedic touches.

Some critics hailed the film as the funniest of the decade, even though it came out just six months into the decade. It actually did hold up well for the entirety of the 80s, and still holds up well more than three decades after its initial release. Even those who weren't born when the film came out will find some of the sight gags to be funny, which means a whole new generation of comedy fans will be able to get a kick out of the movie. There's no denying how much the film influenced cinema for the rest of the 80s, but its potential to continue to influence spoof films well into the future just might be where the true value of "Airplane!" lies.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars