January 13, 2008

AIRPORT 1975 - the good, the bad and the parody

(1975, US)

The rise of the franchise...

Searching around for new disaster movie ideas, Hollywood made a sequel to the original template for the genre - Airport (reviewed recently here) - at a time when sequels were rare.

To identify it closely with the disaster trend, Earthquake stars Charlton Heston and George Kennedy (who also appeared in all four Airport movies) are drafted in to head the cast. The promise of the title is cast aside as the action moves up and away from the airport and firmly into the air. It set a high benchmark for mid-air diasaster movies, before TV movies milked the genre for ideas.

A packed passenger Boeing 747 collides with a private plane, piloted ironically by Dana Andrews the star of Zero Hour. (Airport 75 and Zero Hour together form the butt of most of the gags in AIRPLANE.) With the crew incapacitated, an unlucky stewardess (Karen Black) is left to fly the plane. But she has no piloting experience and certainly doesn’t know how to land it…

Obviously no travel company wants their markings on a crashing plane, even if it’s only a movie. So the producers hired a real 747, painted it up in the fictitious markings of a fake airline, dressed the exterior up to look like it’s been in a collision, and took off. There’s some spectacular shots of it flying low through snow-capped mountain ranges, below the height of the peaks – it’s certainly better than the fakey model shots used elsewhere in the series, but obviously an expensive alternative to special effects – do it for real!

The highlight is the scene with formation-flying of the 747, an air force jet and a jet helicopter with a stuntman being lowered out the back! Exceptionally exciting, but the sequence is sabotaged by intercutting it with grainy back-projection footage of the stars scrambling around among the movie sets. This rescue method was earlier seen in as a plot point in a couple of episodes of Thunderbirds, notably the pilot episode Trapped in the Sky. The highly dangerous air-to-air transfer was again attempted for real in a stunt-sequence in Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger (1993).

Airport 75 is seriously compromised by the underwritten script. Unlike the intricate interwoven story strands of the original Airport, the subplots here are feeble and barely connected. The action comes to a deadening halt as a singing nun grabs a guitar and summons a truly unmemorable song to comfort a sick little girl - it makes you realise how far popular music has come. Linda Blair has to smile in appreciation, here inbetween The Exorcist and Exorcist II, she’s in danger of being typecast as permanently bedridden.

Karen Black helps keeps the movie afloat, single-handedly tidying up wreckage in the cockpit, flying the plane, talking to traffic control on what’s left of the radio, and keeping her hair out of her eyes. Despite starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s last ever film, Family Plot (1976), and Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), this remains her most iconic role. She famously returned to horror films recently in House of a 1000 Corpses.

Charlton Heston had been a leading man, square-jawed hero and star of many biblical epics since the fifties (Ben Hur, El Cid, The Ten Commandments, Touch of Evil), but still hung onto starring roles in the seventies with some unusual choices, like disaster movies and science-fiction. After doing one sci-fi film, Planet of the Apes, he appeared in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green.

But aside from Heston and Karen Black, the viewer is stranded with a mixture of ancient Hollywood stars and TV regulars - their characters are so poorly sketched that they look like they are playing themselves and improvising their dialogue. Slack editing of these interior scenes almost puts the hard work of the second unit to waste.

The high-danger scenario, mixed with the lazy melodramatics provide dozens of opportunities and even indentical camera set-ups for the Airplane parodies (1980 and 1982). This is now the core pleasure of watching the Airport films. There are many awful moments, but you can enjoy that they were rightfully later exploited.

Even before that, all of the best aerial footage was recycled for a TV episode of The Incredible Hulk only three years later. What a rip-off!

Despite its many shortcomings, Airport 75 lead to two more sequels, neither of which I can sanely recommend.

The movie deserves to be watched in full 2.35 widescreen - it's on DVD either singly, or as part of the Airport 'Terminal' collection. Enjoy!

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