July 26, 2020
$29.99 Blu-ray, $16.99 Steelbook;
Stars Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Even though it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary, Airplane! Is one of those movies that just seems timeless. The comedy remains as funny as it ever has, despite the multiple viewings many viewers will have had of the film by now.
The story involves a passenger plane from Los Angeles to Chicago falling under trouble after the flight crew and many of the passengers fall ill due to food poisoning. The only other pilot on board is Ted (Robert Hays), the veteran of an unspecified war dealing with PTSD, and who is only on the plane to try to win back former flame Elaine (Julie Hagerty), one of the flight attendants.
Aside from countless sight gags, puns and deadpan recitations of absurd dialogue, the film’s great strength it spoofs the entire genre of disaster movies, rather than relying on specific pop culture references (though there are a few that will seem outdated, they are easy enough to move past considering the rapid pace of the gags).
But Airplane! also holds up thanks to its endearing characters and the memorable performances behind them. In addition to Hays and Hagerty, there’s Lloyd Bridges as the chief flight controller trying to keep the situation under control, to Peter Graves as the pilot hoping to impress young boys in his cockpit, to Robert Stack as the cocky pilot brought in to talk Ted through landing the plane. Then there’s Leslie Nielsen, former dramatic leading man whose late-in-life reputation for slapstick comedy roles kicked off with his pitch perfect performance as the dead serious doctor trying to treat all the passengers for food poisoning.
The writing-directing team of Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker took special care to ensure that the touchstone gags were funny in their own right, not simply relying on audiences to recognize a reference to something that was popular at the time, as so many parodies of the past 10 years have done.
At the same time, film historians have had a field day picking apart the primary inspirations for the film. For the most part, Airplane! Is a remake of the 1957 air-flight disaster drama Zero Hour!, re-creating so many scenes and lifting so much dialogue verbatim from that film that the filmmakers ended up buying the rights to the original film’s screenplay. But the film also borrows heavily from 1970’s Airport and its increasingly preposterous sequels, even down to specific camera angles.
Interestingly, the original novel on which Airport was based was written by Arthur Hailey, who also co-wrote the Zero Hour! Screenplay. Maybe he should have received an honorary co-writing credit on Airplane! as well.
Ultimately, of course, Airplane! proved so effective at spoofing its source material that it’s likely to have a longer lasting legacy than any of the movies its aping. In fact, those older movies are now almost impossible to take seriously anymore without bringing Airplane! to mind.
For its new 40th anniversary Blu-ray re-release, Paramount has cleaned up the film with a new 4K scan that makes the colors pop and brings out more textures and details than earlier HD releases.
However, the studio has continued its frustrating trend of eliminating legacy material for its new “premium” edition Blu-ray line. For those who don’t have the movie on Blu-ray yet, it’s an easy pick-up. But fans of the movie who want all the available extras aren’t going to want to switch out their older copies any time soon.
The only extra carried over from the 2011 Blu-ray is the audio commentary with producer Jon Davison, Abrahams and the Zuckers. The new Blu-ray does add an isolated track of Elmer Bernstein’s standout musical score (from this film to Ghostbusters and others in the 1980s, the veteran composer had picked up quite a reputation for scoring comedies).
Both these audio options are found not in the extras section, but in the audio setup section.
The two newly produced featurettes debuting with this Blu-ray are pretty good. The first is a nine-minute “Filmmaker Focus” mixing interviews with Abrahams and the Zuckers with clips from the movie as they recount the production. The other is a 35-minute Q&A with the directors filmed at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood at an event held Jan. 10, 2020.
Missing from earlier releases are the trailer, a trivia track and the “Long Haul” version that offered prompts during the film for viewers to access deleted scenes, interviews and other bonus content. Surely some of these could have been repackaged as standalone extras.
Compounding the confusion is why Paramount would include a digital code with a less-expensive Steelbook edition containing the same disc, but omit the digital copy from the version with the standard Presents packaging that includes a slipcover with fold-out movie poster. It’s almost like a dare to not to buy the Presents titles.