It’s appropriate that the last movie bearing the Airport brand name begins with a balloon getting inflated, because this series is filled with nothing so much as hot air. Melodramatic, overlong, and trite, each of the four Airport flicks is a midair soap opera, with characterization and dialogue that would barely pass muster in the worst episodic television. If not for the innate allure of disaster stories and the presence of motley casts comprising former A-listers and permanent C-listers, these pictures would have vanished into obscurity immediately after they were made. However, one should never underestimate the public’s appetite for vapid escapism: The first picture was the biggest moneymaker of 1970 (out-earning M*A*S*H and Patton), and it somehow snared 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. As the people filling that balloon at the beginning of The Concorde: Airport ’79 know, hot air always rises.
The first flick, simply titled Airport and adapted from Arthur Hailey’s bestselling novel of the same name, is lumbering and dull. An airport manager (Burt Lancaster) and a pilot (Dean Martin) face a crisis when a disturbed passenger (Van Heflin) sneaks a bomb onto a passenger jet. Contrived romantic subplots abound, as do goofy elements like a storyline about an elderly woman (Helen Hayes) who keeps sneaking onto flights as a stowaway. Shot in a flat, ugly style that reveals every location as part of a garishly lit soundstage, the talky movie grinds through so much nonsense that Martin’s plane doesn’t even take off until after the one-hour mark.
Only about 30 minutes of the movie contain actual disaster-oriented action, so it’s notable that even though Airport was the first hit for the genre, the familiar victim-every-10-minutes formula wasn’t perfected until producer Irwin Allen (who had nothing to do with the Airport movies) made The Poseidon Adventure in 1972. About the only lively element of Airport is George Kennedy’s lusty supporting performance as airport engineer Joe Patroni, who spouts macho lines like, “I’ll have this mother outta here by midnight!” There’s also some mild interest in spotting moments that were later spoofed in Airplane! (1980), like the vignette of a stewardess slapping a hysterical passenger.
For the imaginatively titled sequel Airport 1975, producer Jenning Lang took the franchise reins and shamelessly copied Irwin Allen’s style; Lang also hired square-jawed leading man Charlton Heston, who previously led the cast of Lang’s Allen-esque disaster flick Earthquake (1974). Although it’s just as insipid as the original film, Airport 1975 is more enjoyable, simply because it doesn’t take itself seriously; the movie is all about cheap thrills and over-the-top storytelling. In this one, a 747 is struck in mid-air by a tiny private plane, blowing out the cockpit and killing the flight crew. After the accident, a stewardess (Karen Black) has to keep the plane steady until her boyfriend (Heston) can reach the plane via helicopter, climb into the cockpit by rope ladder, and steer the jet to a safe landing. About the only thing more absurd than the plot is the cast, which also includes Linda Blair, Sid Caesar, Erik Estrada, Helen Reddy, and Gloria Swanson (as herself!). Kennedy reprises his Patroni role to mostly inconsequential effect.
After this crescendo of craptastic cinema, the series fell to earth with Airport ’77, a boring thriller about a plane that gets hijacked over the Bermuda Triangle, and then plummets into the ocean. Instead of mid-air suspense, most of the picture delivers dull tight-quarters bickering set in the underwater jet, and everyone in the mixed-bag cast looks bored: Joseph Cotten, Lee Grant, Christopher Lee, Jack Lemmon, James Stewart, and so on. (Kennedy’s back as Patroni, not that it makes much difference.) Airport ’77 is the nadir of a series whose quality level was never high.
The final entry in the franchise is arguably the most enjoyable, at least from a bad-cinema perspective, because The Concorde: Airport ’79 is preposterous right from the first frames. Cinematic cheese is spread evenly across a ludicrous story, cringe-inducing dialogue, and a parade of laughable performances. In other words, Airport ’79 marks the moment the franchise officially became The Love Boat with explosions. Kennedy finally gets promoted to a leading role, co-piloting the famously sleek French jet of the title with a smooth Gallic flyer (Alain Delon). Meanwhile, an evil industrialist (Robert Wagner) wants to blow up the plane because one of the passengers is carrying evidence that incriminates him for dastardly deeds. Wagner tries to take out the Concorde with a robot drone, a manned fighter jet, and, finally, a bomb smuggled on board when the Concorde conveniently hits the tarmac long enough for sabotage. Several actors who should have known better got roped into acting in this drivel (Eddie Albert, Cicely Tyson, David Warner), but most of the screen time goes to ’70s also-rans like John Davidson, Andrea Marcovicci, and Jimmie J.J. Walker. Cementing the Love Boat parallel, Charo even shows up for a cameo.
Airport 1975: FUNKY
Airport ’77: SQUARE
The Concorde: Airport ’79: FUNKY