But Airplane! doesn't reign just by calling firsties. Or rather, it does - because it hit the bull's eye so dead-center that there wasn't much room left for other arrows. It purportedly spoofs the airplane-based disaster movies so popular at the time of its 1980 release, but much of the main plot (a scarred war pilot must attempt to land a passenger jet during a storm when the crew falls ill) and even some specific scene are lifted from the little-known 1957 B-movie Zero Hour (unseen by me); it simultaneously satirizes one particularly obscure film, '70s disaster films, and every bad B-movie you've ever seen.
Other movies with a similar style predate this one; Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, and the Mel Brooks genre spoofs like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles come to mind. But Airplane! takes the high-volume-joke approach to wholesale levels; there is simply no dopey gag ("and stop calling me Shirley") nor shtick (puns, slapstick, casual surrealism) unturned, and no more than a few seconds between unturnings.
The Zuckers and Abrahams also managed to recruit the perfect movie-spoofing cast, whereas the '70s Mel Brooks movies, good as they are, tend to rely on familiar comic faces. Airplane!, in contrast, contains very little mugging. Leslie Nielsen, hilarious as he is in the Naked Gun series, has never been so bone-dry in the second-act comedy career this film launched; Lloyd Bridges, likewise, is amusing in the Hot Shots! movies but completes a perfect slow burn into insanity here (the "wrong day to quit smoking" becomes the "wrong day to quiet amphetamines"). The whole team plays even the most outlandish gags, such as the repeated suicide attempts during Ted Striker's (Robert Hays) backstory monologues, perfectly straight.
The result is a film that's not just funny but completely funny, ridiculously funny, unrelentingly funny; a comedy that, while inconsequential in many ways, is just about impossible to improve upon. This may be the Zuckers' strangest, most lasting joke of all.
The new DVD of the film is a real treasure, featuring a version of the film that jumps to outtakes, deleted scenes, and copious interviews with nearly everyone involved in the film, down to the most minor characters. All manner of trivia is revealed -- David Letterman was tested for the lead role -- and seeing the principals again 25 years later is truly eye-opening. There's also a standard commentary track with the directors and a trivia track.
Run time: 88 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 2nd July 1980
Box Office Worldwide: $83.5M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Fresh: 55 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Producer: Howard W. Koch, Jon Davison
Starring: Robert Hays as Ted Striker, Julie Hagerty as Elaine, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Murdock, Lloyd Bridges as McCroskey, Peter Graves as Captain Oveur, Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack, Lorna Patterson as Randy, Robert Stack as Rex Kramer, Stephen Stucker as Johnny, Jim Abrahams as Religious zealot #6, Frank Ashmore as Victor Basta, Jonathan Banks as Gunderson, Craig Berenson as Paul Carey, Barbara Billingsley as Jive Lady, Lee Bryant as Mrs. Hammen, Joyce Bulifant as Mrs. Davis, Mae E. Campbell as Security Lady, Ethel Merman as Lieutenant Hurwitz, Jimmie Walker as Windshield Wiper Man, Jill Whelan as Lisa Davis
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