Do you like movies about gladiators? This isn't one. This is Airplane! If someone could possibly sit through an initial viewing without laughing, that person's family would have to be in danger of dying in a plane where the flight crew ingested bad fish. No exceptions. Thirty years on, the comedy here remains 95% fresh, unlike 95% of anything else from the 1980s.
Bartlett's Famous Quotations would be justified in producing a supplemental yearly edition that reprints the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker Airplane! screenplay in its entirety. It is no more possible to watch and not quote Airplane! than it is to actually remember a single line of dialogue from any spoofy films made in the last decade.
The film is a benchmark for anything and everything that follows in the realm of spoof films. Here’s why this seems odd to me. I abhor the ____ Movie parodies of Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer, and the like, due in large part to their lack of subtlety and insistence on unfunnily aping other films’ details rather than overall tone. If asked, I would have praised Airplane! for doing the opposite and parodying a genre, rather than specific instances. I am the dunce here, after seeing how closely the Z-A-Z comedy team mimicked scenes from the 1957 film Zero Hour!, which I knew was an inspiration, but had no idea how large. So these guys were brilliant for a while, and I'm not. Feel free to attempt several forms of suicide as I ramble on. (Movie reference, and not blanketed hatred towards loyal readership.)
This is less a review and more a celebratory hand job for the film that first patented Leslie Nielsen's genius brand of Leslie Nielsen humor. Airplane! produced hysterical genre-bending performances from Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, and Peter Graves as well. It's depressing that none of these actors walk amongst the living, though Stack's ghost still haunts my subconscious in a mysteriously unsolved kind of way. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appears a comedy virtuoso in a role originally meant for Pete Rose. Fuck Pete Rose sideways. Chump don' want no help, chump don' get da help.
Maybe Airplane!’s genius lies in the first-time filmmaking of this writing-directing trio. Coming at things from an amateur perspective puts limitations in the blind spot, allowing jokes and stunts both large and small to make it past a sharper editing eye. So any time a plane shows up on screen, chances are it was a real one, as the directors didn’t have the instinct to use miniature models. Any time there’s a visual gag such as the “Nun’s Life” magazine cover with a nun riding a surfboard, somebody went out and photographed that surfing nun. Seriously, they did. And don’t call me Seriously.
Four paragraphs without mentioning Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty, the actual stars of the movie, is no slight to their performances, which are sublimely game, tethering all of these random elements together. Hagerty’s aloof femininity as Elaine is the perfect romantic foil for the war-haunted masculinity of Hays’ Ted Striker. Any woman who can stand by a man with a drinking problem is bound to be worth saving, even if she has a brief oral relationship with Otto Pilot, the inflatable autopilot. The couple who dances to the Bee Gees together stays together.
Sure, some of these references are dated, but most have aged like a fine wine. Even the jokes you don’t understand are funny if you’ve been drinking fine, or cheap, wine. Nothing will ever be quite like Airplane! again, but that’s okay. A movie that can still deliver after dozens of viewings deserves a pedestal high in the sky. Though not so high that it reaches outer space, like Airplane II.
Comedy doesn’t need to be beautiful to be funny, much like the bulk of my private parts. Seeing as how the Blu-ray upgrade is the only actual update, it should stand out, and it does. I can’t tell you what the last DVD looked like, but Airplane! will forever have a videotape/cable washed-out look to it in my memory. It retains the look of 1980, but with a richer contrast and brighter tones than it’s ever shown before. Necessary? Not at all. More impressive than a seventeenth retread in other formats? Absolutely.
The previously included special features are both top-notch. By both, I mean two. Two features for one of the funniest films ever. This sin is close to forgiven, however. The “Long Haul” version is my least favorite form of special feature, but produced in a mind-changingly awesome way. A “TA” symbol in the corner signifies a break in the film for a short feature relevant to whatever is onscreen, including interviews and deleted scenes. These segments add up to a feature-length extra, appearing constantly and rapidly throughout. Just about every living actor and major crew member from the film offers hilarious tidbits about the off-kilter path the movie took to get made. The most memorable fact to me is that the Jive gentlemen were best friends and wrote their own dialogue for the movie. Talent. Boring stories don’t exist here.
Other than an amusing and informative trivia track that serves as a caption substitute, the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker team give a humor-filled commentary that rehashes some of the same information already given without losing any entertainment value. Laughs on top of laughs on top of laughs.
Though Blu-rays are superior to DVDs, I usually don’t care which version I’m watching, so it feels strange to champion this Blu-ray for a movie that would be hilarious if played through an Atari. But I am, because there’s something amazing about this movie. What is it? It’s a series of moving pictures.