Monday, September 26, 2011

Airport (1970) & Airport 1975 (1974) & Airport ’77 (1977) & The Concorde: Airport ’79 (1979)

          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: LAME
Airport 1975: FUNKY
Airport ’77: SQUARE
The Concorde: Airport ’79: FUNKY


Peter L. Winkler said...

Mark Robson produced "Earthquake," not Irwin Allen, as you state in your review.

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By Peter Hanson said...

My impression is that Robson was more of a hired hand on "Earthquake" and that Jennings Lang was pulling the strings (hence the strong continuity between "Earthquake" and the three "Airport" pictures Lang oversaw), but you're correct that Allen's name was improperly listed. Thanks for spotting the error. It's been fixed.

Anonymous said...

That's Arthur Hailey who wrote "Airport" (Alex Haley being the author of "Roots" ;) ). We tend to think of "Airport" as the first of the "Disaster Movies" today, because of the form its sequels took, but I think it's really more of a precursor of the phenomenon. Hailey's shtick was heavily researched potboiler novels with multiple plots revolving around a particular setting and culminating in some crisis event. "Airport" was probably pitched chiefly as a follow-up to his "Hotel" which had been made into a movie in 1967. Only after the Irwin Allen era was underway did people likely start thinking about it as being about a bomb on a plane, rather than that simply being the flashy climax of a big budget soap opera.

Tommy Ross said...

Agree with "Umbrielx", the original Airport stands alone and was meant to be a faithful adaption of the novel. Hailey was imo a great writer who created a cool niche for himself and if you can find Hotel (VHS is pricey but worth it) you'll find it is a great film and blows Airport out of the water. Having said that, I would also throw in my two cents that Airport deserves at least a "Funky" maybe a "Groovily Funky"

Ben Rogers said...

Two comments.

Footage from Airport '77 was edited into a 2000 film, Submerged, a direct to video film starring Coolio and using the basic plot (jet sinks into the ocean intact and survivors must rescued by raising the plane). I am not certain if the original sets were used, but the contemporary sets match those from the older film.

Mark Robson extensively rewrote the Earthquake script (uncredited) as he was also a producer (Filmmakers Group).