Paramount // 1980 // 87 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // October 25th, 2000
What's slower than a speeding bullet, and able to hit tall buildings at a single bound?
David and Jerry Zucker, along with Jim Abrahams have made the spoof movie an art form. After Kentucky Fried Movie the trio was looking to do a spoof on old flying movies, along with the disaster movies of the '70s and anything else that came to mind. That film was Airplane!, a laugh a second romp that tries to make every moment, every line, and every prop part of an ongoing joke. Wildly successful, the film celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and recently was given a nod by the AFI as one of the top ten funniest movies ever made. While I wouldn't put it in the top ten funniest (nor did I agree with many of the AFI choices), it is still a very funny film that only suffers from some dated jokes. Paramount has released the film on DVD, with a nice new anamorphic transfer and 5.1 soundtrack, with an extra feature or two for good measure.
Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is an ex fighter pilot suffering from phobias stemming from wartime trauma, lack of self-esteem, and a drinking problem (not the kind you think). He finally works up the courage to get on a plane to try to talk his girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) out of breaking up with him. Unfortunately the whole flight crew falls prey to food poisoning and only Ted, with the help of Otto the Autopilot, Elaine, the Doctor (Leslie Nielson), and the people on the ground (Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges) can get the plane down safely, if he can overcome his fears.
Telling that story is totally inadequate in describing the film. The storyline is merely a backdrop for the frequent sight, verbal, and physical comedy bits that come at a machine-gun pace throughout the film. Innumerable films, both famous and infamous, are spoofed, along with television commercials of the time and other jokes just thrown in for the heck of it. My favorite among the spoof bits remains the take off of Saturday Night Fever, which still got me rolling even now. But this is the quantity theory of comedy: more jokes is better than fewer, even if not all of them work. Quite a few of them did work, and for those of us old enough to remember the times still do.
Part of what made the film work I believe was how straight so much of it was played. Rather than hire the most famous comedians of the time and put them in all the major roles, the directors put real dramatic stars and those who could tell a joke deadpan in them. Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges are especially effective at this in the film, and Leslie Nielson (ironically not the first choice for the film) went on to make a career out of it. Still, the settings, the flashbacks, and the total disregard for taste or political correctness had a lot to do with it as well. Nothing is sacred or exempt from playing for laughs and no thought to making anyone or anything look good in the process was given. The film is surprisingly raunchy given its PG rating, which goes to show that if anything we've gotten more prudish with our ratings.
This is one of those strange films that is actually less as a whole than it is as a sum of its parts. As a pure airplane movie it's only fair; what makes it better are the little gags punctuating every moment. From Barbara Billingsley (the mom on Leave it to Beaver) speaking "jive" to the black passengers as a translator to Julie Hagerty "inflating" the autopilot there are so many bits that work for laughs. Even after 20 years it still makes for a good time.
Paramount has done a fine job with the picture on the disc as well, especially for an older film. That isn't to say it is perfect, but again this was an older film made on a fairly low budget. Colors look bright, blacks are deep, fleshtones fleshy. Detail isn't as sharp as a newer film, despite some minimal edge enhancement having been applied. Some grain is evident, but isn't a terrible flaw either. Sometimes these descriptions focus on small flaws so much it is difficult to emphasize that the transfer still looks very good, especially for (say it with me again) an older film.
Paramount took the original mono soundtrack and remixed it to Dolby Digital 5.1. For a remix it is pretty good, with some spaciousness and directionality added to the otherwise unremarkable soundtrack. Dynamic range and fidelity are limited by the source elements, but the sound does what is expected of it.
Paramount isn't well known for providing extra content, but they've done somewhat better of late. The only bonus of note is the commentary track with David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and producer Jon Davison. After having heard their commentary for Kentucky Fried Movie I had high hopes for this one, and when it's good it's very good. The group have funny stories and aren't afraid to call parts of the film cheesy or cheap. "There's a $25 effect!" can be heard. The problem is that the group runs out of steam about halfway through the picture and have trouble coming up with things to say. When they do they often all jump on it at once and talk over each other so they are the only ones who get the joke. So this is an uneven track but one I still enjoyed. The theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen and mono sound is the only other extra. Still, for Paramount this is a good step, and we look forward to more commitment to extras in the future.
I still consider this a very funny movie. But I wouldn't put it in the top ten funniest films of all time, and there are problems. One of them is largely unavoidable now, and that is how dated some of the gags are. I actually remembered some of the television commercials that were being spoofed, but many won't and the jokes won't really make sense. Some of the jokes are dated simply from the era, such as the jokes about disco. Other jokes don't have that excuse, and simply fall flat on their own. But the point of this film is that if they throw enough jokes at you, enough of them will work. And enough of them do.
The disc has a few lacks, some of which I brought up already. The transfer is fine, but has some flaws. The same could be said for the soundtrack. The commentary track isn't as funny and satisfying as the one in Kentucky Fried Movie for example. Purists would also complain about the lack of the original mono soundtrack in English. I would have preferred the original track also be included, but as a personal matter I don't really mind the lack of it.
For fans of the film and the Zucker and Abrahams style of filmmaking this disc is a worthy addition to your collection. I got quite a few laughs out of seeing it again even after repeated viewings over the years, so it is at least worth a rental for those looking for a fun evening at home. Now I'm waiting for the definitive version of Top Secret and I'll be really happy.
Disc and film are both acquitted, though I wish Paramount would have given the commentators another take to make for a better track, which is something they mentioned they would have liked to do. Good commentary tracks sometimes take time.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary Track