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Blu-ray Review: Airplane!

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It is either madness or genius that would inspire anyone to cast stony-faced dramatic actors as stars of a zany comedy movie. The creative team of Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams (sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it?) did exactly that when they made comedy stars of Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges in the 1980 movie Airplane!. The much-honored movie is one of the funniest (and most groan-inducing) movies ever made. Paramount has just released this ‘80s comedy classic on Blu-ray in an exclusive arrangement with Best Buy stores.

Based on the 1957 movie Zero Hour (some scenes are direct rips—but don’t worry, the producers bought the rights), Airplane! is also obviously inspired by the 1970s Airport franchise. The low-budget comedy tells the intentionally corny story of Ted Striker (Robert Hays), an ex-fighter jock who lost his nerve “in the war.” Terrified of flying even as a passenger, he follows the love of his life, stewardess Elaine (Julie Hagerty), aboard a doomed jet liner (which oddly buzzes like an old-time prop plane as it flies across stormy skies from Los Angeles to Chicago). 

Soon after dinner, the passengers and crew begin to fall ill and it is ultimately up to Ted to step up and fly the jumbo jet and land it safely in Chicago. It’s a simple (some would say—okay, most would say—insipid) plot, but that’s fine, because the mastery of Airplane! has nothing really to do with its plot. Actually, the story is merely thinly veiled backdrop for this masterpiece of puns, double entendres, bizarre visual non-sequitors and otherwise complete silliness that set the stage for many movies to come. 

It’s such a landmark of comedic filmmaking that last year it was named to the Library of Congress’ National Historic Film registry. It’s been on numerous “best comedies of all time lists” both in the U.S. and abroad.

Airplane! defines its genre by sticking close to the genre it skewers. Its romantic leads exude extreme doe-eyed earnestness as Ted wins back the Elaine by turning from annoyingly neurotic passenger to heroic man of the moment. Of course, there is his “drinking problem” (he can’t seem to hit his mouth when trying to take a sip or a nip), and his constant and (suicide-inducing droning) reminicences about “the war” (which takes the form of black and white flashbacks to the World War II air combat).

Nielsen, in a career-altering role, plays a passenger who answers the call, “Is there a doctor in the house?” when people begin to get sick. Surely, his stony-faced and bone-dry delivery is classic. (And don’t call him ‘Shirley’! Which, by the way, is one of the movie’s still-quoted puns, more than 30 years later.) Nielsen went on to make that dead-on deadpan into its own franchise in other Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams creations, including The Naked Gun and Police Squad.

Bridges plays the airline official in charge of managing the crisis bringing the plane safely to Chicago, and Stack is the pilot called in to talk Ted back to earth. Both actors deliver some of the most double take-inducing silly dialogue with such utter deadpan seriousness that it’s comedic genius. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appears in the cockpit as co-pilot Roger Murdock who happens to be a dead ringer for the basketball star (something Roger completely denies, although he seems to be driving this plane dressed ready to shoot hoops!)

The movie itself is a broad satire on those awful, melodramatic disaster flicks we hate to love, but within and around the inane plot, Airplane! mocks everything from the religious zealots who used to frequent airport concourses (in the days before September 11, 2001), television commercials, folksingers, and pretty much everything else that crosses the movie’s path.

The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p with a 1.78:1 transfer. It’s a decent transfer that maintains, without trying to technically improve, the movie’s original low-budget look and feel; the intentionally cheesy special effects present even cheesier (and I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing). For example, you can actually see the strings on the obvious strung up model of a jetliner “flying” against a stormy night sky used the plane’s exterior shots. Detail is good throughout, but nothing looks too perfect.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless audio track is clear and vibrant. The intentionally almost-garish Elmer Bernstein musical score comes through in all its melodramatic richness. A great take on the “Stayin’ Alive” scene from 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, complete with the Bee Gees soundtrack is vibrant and room filling. The dialogue is all clear and crisp throughout, important for a movie so reliant on rapier quick one-liners that might otherwise be lost in a poor transfer.

There are only a few extras in this Blu-ray release. A mediocre commentary track with producer Jon Davison and writer/directors Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams does have a few gems of trivia thrown in for Airplane! aficionados despite the obvious fact that the four had no idea what to say half the time. There is an “enhanced” track, which includes optional detours to activate deleted scenes, trivia about the movie, and interviews with the cast and creative team. But there are no separate featurettes included. It would have been nice to be able to access the deleted scenes and interviews without having to run through the entire movie.

If you’re a fan of the movie (or the genre) you should definitely have this one in your library. If you’ve never seen Airplane!, here’s your chance to see it in all of its glory. And surely everyone should see it. (And don’t call me Shirley!)

The Blu-ray release is available exclusively from Best Buy.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.