|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 24 October 2000|
As the liner notes helpfully point out, ‘Airplane!’ was voted one of the 10 funniest movies ever made by the American Film Institute. Whether or not one accepts the AFI’s assessment (there are plenty of less financially successful films that might make one’s personal top 10), there’s no denying that this spoof of the airborne disaster genre is genuinely and consistently hilarious. Not only has ‘Airplane!’ spawned a slew of imitations, but it stands the test of time well – most of its jokes are as funny now as they were when the film premiered 20 years ago.
While it’s not essential to enjoying ‘Airplane!’, it helps to have seen a few of the insanely melodramatic films it sends up. The jetliner-having-to-be-flown-by-a-novice-when-the-pilots-are-incapacitated plot was a favorite in the ‘70s, with at least four movies in the ‘Airport’ franchise alone (along with countless knockoffs for both the big and small screens). Directors/writers Jim Abrahams and brothers Jerry Zucker and David Zucker, working as a trio, don’t miss a trick – the war veteran trying to win back his lost love, friction between the tough guys on the ground, even the singing stewardess with the guitar are all here.
As they trio of filmmakers note on the audio commentary track, ‘Airplane!’ was originally thought of as a short installment in a ‘Kentucky Fried Movie’ anthology film (Abrahams and the Zuckers wrote ‘Kentucky,’ but John Landis directed that earlier feature) before they realized the air disaster premise had enough inherent humor to fill up an entire feature. The jokes come so fast and furious that even when one doesn’t work, another zips along immediately to take its place. A few of the jokes haven’t aged well, but it’s amazing how much of this silliness is truly timeless.
The picture quality on the DVD is extremely solid and distinct. To check out just how sharp and faithful it is, go to Chapter 6. In a parody of a ‘Saturday Night Fever’ disco scene, a mirror ball casts colored reflections near the ceiling, which are reproduced here in all their fluid subtlety without any streaking or glare. In Chapter 23, when the rampaging airliner cruises low through a city skyline at night, lights in buildings glitter in perfect placement, again without ghosting or false hues.
The sound is mostly excellent, although there’s one odd patch with a flaw so curious that it may be deliberate. (Not having seen the film in a theatre in years, it’s impossible to remember.) Dialogue in Chapter 3 sounds as though it’s coming through a faulty intercom system, even though the people are speaking within view of each other – could be a glitch, could be a joke about the public announcement systems on airplanes. As the rest of the soundtrack is quite sharp, the latter seems more likely.
Chapter 1 has a great, speaker-jumping rendition of the ‘Jaws’ theme, as the plane’s tail menacingly cuts through a cloudbank. Chapter 4 makes surprisingly enveloping use of the rears for some "romantic" music, putting us in the scene with the characters. Chapter 7 dramatically and almost literally clears a center channel space for dialogue in music that has previously occupied all three front speakers. Chapter 10 has a joke that actually relies on the precise replication of vibrating acoustic guitar strings followed by impact sounds as the instrument is dragged over the heads of pained airline passengers, bumping each as it passes. Chapter 11 provides a vigorous musical jolt to the rear speakers, so forcefully that it almost works as a "jump" scare. Chapter 21 has a finely calibrated bomb impact, loud enough to be realistic and unthreatening enough to be funny.
Listening to the audio track is like being at a party with good gossip, as the three writers/directors and producer Jon Davison make fun of themselves, reminisce about their co-workers and generally have a fine time. The commentary track helpfully subtitles the dialogue of the onscreen action, so that it’s still possible to track the movie in progress.
Among other things, ‘Airplane!’ marks the major comedy debut of Leslie Nielsen, who’d spent a lot of his earlier career doing this sort of thing for real. His deadpan is priceless, and Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves also send up their usual stern images to riotous effect. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proves that he’s a good sport by letting the film make fun of him (he plays himself, posing as an airline pilot) – there’s an amusing story on the commentary track about his reasons for taking the role. Robert Hays, as the fighter pilot who’s lost his nerve, and Julie Hagerty, as the stewardess he’s wooing, are both on the money. However, the cast’s true standout may be the late Stephen Stucker as a fey air traffic controller who has the most off-the-wall lines and delivery in the whole film. He’s an exact fit for the free-associating, down-the-rabbit-hole comedic insanity that ‘Airplane!’ so sublimely embodies.