The Airport Franchise

How can you dislike a movie that most other people love?  It’s a question that inevitably pops up from time to time.  For instance, when I saw Airplane! on tape in 2001, despite a few funny moments, it just didn’t work for me.  Not only is it not the most hilarious film comedy of all time, despite what Entertainment Weekly has long believed, it’s not even a good movie, period.  For seven years, I’ve been baffled.  Then, I saw Airport.  Mystery solved.
 
One thing I’ve learned about satire is that when you make fun of something that is already funny in its own right you’re just being repetitive and not at all clever.  That’s why Scary Movie is no substitute for Scream, why National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon I, a goof on the Lethal Weapon series, failed and why Airport is superior to Airplane!.
 
Even though it was sold as a disaster movie, it’s actually more of a human comedy and a compelling soap opera than anything else.  Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey, it tells several stories over the course of one long night during its nearly 140-minute running time.
 
Burt Lancaster is an overworked bigwig torn between two women, his increasingly bitter wife (Dana Wynter) and his babealicious assistant (Jean Seberg).  Seberg loves him right back but neither have made a move on each other.  He has two kids and he worries about breaking up his family.
 
Meanwhile, much to his annoyance, Dean Martin is married to his sister (Barbara Hale).  He’s an airline pilot secretly involved with a red-hot stewardess (played by the always fetching Jacqueline Bisset).  Before their fateful flight, Bisset drops a bombshell.  She’s preggers.  Vanity convinced her to stop taking the pill.  (She wanted to slim down.)  This leads to a remarkably adult conversation about abortion without ever once mentioning the word.  Martin surprises both Bisset and himself by standing by her.  It’s one of the most charming examples of cinematic adultery I’ve ever seen.
 
There’s more.  An important runway is blocked by a plane stuck in snow.  Lancaster calls his buddy, the great George Kennedy, to lead the shovelling effort.  A desperate husband (Van Heflin), tired of his inability to keep a job, plans to blow himself up on Martin and Bisset’s flight so his wife (Maureen Stapleton) can cash in his $225,000 life insurance policy he purchases before boarding.  And a crafty old lady (the very funny and lovable Helen Hayes who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), who has numerous methods for sneaking onto planes for free, all remarkably effective because of predictably lax security, finds herself seated right next to the bomber.  Add a neighbourhood protest regarding the constant annoyance of passing planes at all hours (there’s a very funny moment involving an interrupted prayer before a meal) and a threat to shut down the airport during a bustling night of business and you’ve got more than enough plot to follow.
 
Despite that abortion scene (lamely referenced in Airplane!) and the fact the movie was released in 1970, Airport has a very old-fashioned feel about it.  It could’ve been made twenty years earlier without coming across any different.  The performances are all first rate.  The dialogue is clever and often very funny, intentionally so, I might add, and even the stuff involving the desperate husband works.  The movie hooked me all the way through.
 
However, Airport doesn’t have the heart to offer true suspense in its final act which is pretty much anticlimactic and it’s fairly obvious how the two romantic subplots will resolve themselves.  Despite its Best Picture nomination, this is not a masterpiece.
 
But it is a solid entertainment smart enough to balance its soap operatic tendencies with much needed humour.
 
Four years later, Airport 1975, the first sequel in the franchise was shipped to theatres.  Why a movie released in 1974 would have the wrong year in its title, I have no idea.  Nonetheless, this is a ridiculous follow-up.
 
Charlton Heston plays a pilot involved with a stewardess with strange eyes (Karen Black).  They’re not getting along at the start which doesn’t matter because they have zero chemistry.  While Heston rests before his next flight, Black serves people like Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell, Helen Reddy, Linda Blair, Myrna Loy, Sid Caesar and, believe it or not, Gloria Swanson (doing a nice job playing herself) on a 747 that will soon collide with a private plane helmed by an old man suffering a sudden heart attack.  It’s a laughable moment, not at all believable, that completely wipes out the two pilots and the flight engineer (would you believe Erik Estrada?).  With a gaping hole on the right side of the cockpit (but no fire?), Black is called into duty by an awakened Heston, an air traffic controller and George Kennedy, once again coming to the rescue of a fellow airline employee.  He’s been promoted to Vice President of Operations, according to his wife, Susan Clark, who, along with their young son, is also on that 747.
 
There’s something terribly unexciting about the odd-looking Black constantly receiving instructions on how to fly that damn plane (press that button, pull that switch, turn the wheel slowly), especially when there aren’t any serious close calls regarding the safety of the passengers.  (Also, I didn’t care for the condescending way these guys talk her through everything.)  There’s simply little energy here to jolt the tension.  At some point, neither side can communicate with one another.  As a result, a plan is hatched to literally drop in a fresh pilot to steer the 747 for the rest of the trip.  The overuse of chroma key and the fact that it takes two tries to get someone in the cockpit leads to some unintentional laughter.
 
That being said, Airport 1975 isn’t an awful film, despite its mediocrity.  Helen Reddy, who plays a nun, offers a nice, original song.  Linda Blair is sweet as the young girl in need of a new kidney.  Sid Caesar is good as the guy who claims to have a small role in the in-flight movie, American Graffiti (which is never named).  And Gloria Swanson ended her film career on a strong note, offering charming, short anecdotes about her glory days while working on an autobiography.
 
But unlike the original Airport, this movie defines itself as a disaster movie.  It’s a disaster, alright, (although it could’ve been much worse) but not the type the filmmakers were hoping for.
 
Much better is Airport ’77.  Jimmy Stewart is a kindly old billionaire about to launch two important ventures:  a new type of airplane (think carnival cruise ship with wings) and an art museum.  The much missed Jack Lemmon plays the pilot who will fly that plane to the museum.  But unbeknowst to him and his passengers (which include a wonderfully bitchy Lee Grant, Olivia de Havilland, a young Kathleen Quinlan, Christopher Lee (Lee’s stoic husband), and Gil Gerard (Lee’s lover)), three shady characters have plans of their own.  Hidden amongst the crew, they’re art thieves hoping to slip under the radar in The Bermuda Triangle, steal all the valuable art work on board and desert the plane on an abandoned island not used since WWII.  They attempt to accomplish all of this while knocking everybody out literally (like an unfortunate security guard and Lemmon) and with gas.  No, not the funny kind.
 
Unfortunately, they’re dumb art thieves.  One of them clumsily crashes the plane until it sinks into the ocean.  Once everyone comes to, Lemmon brilliantly takes charge while E. Emmet Walsh, in a rare good guy role, plays a veterinarian who looks after the injured passengers.  It’s only a matter of time before the structure of the plane gives way to immense water pressure so it’s up to our heroes to figure out how to alert the coast guard quickly without making the compelling situation worse.
 
Unlike its predecessor, the effects in Airport ’77 are quite good.  The tidal wave sequence and the third act, in particular, are effective, although the latter requires some patience on the viewer’s part.  Thankfully, it pays off nicely.  There’s definitely a lot more tension here than in Airport 1975.  It’s also a lot more fun.  I like how the movie spends time getting to know its characters rather than just jumping right into the action stuff.  As a result, we’re more emotionally invested in the fates of our heroes.
 
Ok, sure, the plane isn’t that spectacular (although I liked that laserdisc prototype) and once again, this isn’t a superb movie.  But much to my surprise, it’s funny, gripping and made with skill and affection.
 
I wish I could say the same for the final film in this franchise, The Concorde: Airport ’79.  Unlike the three previous chapters, it doesn’t feature the most sensational of casts.  How can it when Charo, Jimmie Walker and John Davidson are here?
 
See if you can keep up with this storyline:  An American airline, Federation, has bought a Concorde airplane, an invention so dazzling it can travel twice the speed of sound.  A French pilot (Alain Delon) is flying it to The States when out of nowhere appears a hot air balloon.  In it are three representatives of the environmental group, Airpeace, who are purposely blocking its path.  The Concorde gets out of the way in time and the environmentalists are detained, never to be heard from again.  Why they wanted to "stop the concorde" is never properly explained.  How are they major air pollutants, exactly?
 
Delon is in an on-again, off-again romance with Sylvia Kristel, a British stewardess.  (How common are these types of affairs in real life, I wonder?)  We have no idea what the deal is with these two.  Not that we care so much.  Yep, you guessed it.  They have no chemistry and their acting is less than special.
 
Delon’s co-pilot for The Concorde’s flights to Paris and Moscow is George Kennedy, playing the same character from the three previous installments.  He’s now a widow (the wife was killed in a car accident a year ago) and his son, who hadn’t reached puberty yet in Airport 1975, is now suddenly college bound.  Blame it on Rapid Aging Disease.
 
As expected, we get to know a little bit about some of the passengers on board.  Cicely Tyson (what is she doing here?) plays a desperate mother who hopes that a heart her doctor (Nicolas Coster from TV’s Santa Barbara) is keeping in a small, cardboard box filled with ice will save her young son’s life.  Talk about a shamelessly manipulative rehash of the kidney transplant storyline from Airport 1975.  There’s also a group of musicians, including pot-smoking saxophonist Jimmie Walker and formerly retired pianist Mercedes McCambridge (the voice of the devil in The Exorcist), en route to a gig at The Moscow Jazz Festival, not to mention The Russian Olympic Team, who have just completed a week-long goodwill tour of America before participating in the 1980 Games.  Among them, we meet an athlete who looks suspiciously like the Doritos guy from those old TV ads (he has a young, deaf daughter) and a beautiful gymnast (Andrea Marcovicci), a two-time Gold-medallist who is having a secret (and unconvincing) affair with sports reporter John Davidson, the dude with impossibly perfect hair.  Davidson’s colleague, Susan Blakely, is an anchorwoman with her own conflict-of-interest problems.  
 
During a newscast sequence that is all plot exposition we learn about a wealthy scientist (Robert Wagner) who’s about to win a prestigious award from The United States Science Foundation.  He’s married with three kids and Blakely’s banging him on the QT.  His company, Harrison Industries, has developed an anti-aircraft missile (which looks more like a giant, black dart).  Unfortunately, Blakely’s world is rocked one night when one of Wagner’s colleagues comes to her house to reveal some shocking news.  Wagner’s been secretly selling weaponry to rogue nations like Cuba and Libya as well as terrorist groups.  The incriminating documentation, complete with Wagner’s signatures, are in a safe place.   However, an assassin permanently silences the informant and comes close to elminating the comely (but dopey) anchorwoman, as well.
 
After failing to get a confession out of Wagner (he denies everything), just before she boards The Concorde the informant’s widow hands her the contents of the weapons deals which leads to a very funny moment where an accusation of murder is shouted for all to hear and Wagner has to slip out of the airport terminal tout suite.
 
Realizing he’s screwed in more ways than one, Wagner knows what he must do:  blow up that Concorde before his mistress publicly reports on his dirty deeds.
 
Like Airport 1975, this is a very silly picture.  There are more unintentional laughs here than scripted ones.  None of the romantic pairings are convincing, there’s little suspense involving the fate of The Concorde and there are huge gaps of logic.  For instance, how is it possible that a highly regarded scientist can carry on an affair with a popular newswoman out in public and no one bats an eye?  Where’s the discretion, people?  And why would he need documentation for illegal weapons deals?  Tax purposes?
 
The movie isn’t awful, though.  Somehow, someway, George Kennedy maintains his dignity and gives an endearing performance despite having to recite some pretty inane dialogue at times.  I like a couple of his intentional quips.  David Warner, who you might remember as the heel from Tron, does a good job, too, playing the underwritten flight engineer.  The best part of The Concorde: Airport ’79, though, is the cinematography, particularly all those glorious second unit shots of the plane in motion.  It really is an extraordinary machine.  It’s too damn bad they’re not in the air anymore.  Mixed in with that spectacular footage are some truly crappy special effects sequences.  Those explosions are really weak, the use of miniatures and overuse of chroma key transparent from the get-go.  And what about the ending?  Gee, that’s not an obvious winter background in a studio.
 
And what’s the deal with Martha Raye always having to whiz?  And that impromptu marriage ceremony?  Cornball!
 
By the end, we understand completely why this was the last Airport movie.  Oh well.  Two out of four ain’t bad.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
7:28 p.m.
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Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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