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40 Years of “Airport”: “Airport ’77” (1977)

40 Years of “Airport”: “Airport ’77” (1977) (photo)

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In 1970, one movie invented the modern disaster film. After grossing more than $100 million at the domestic box office (adjusted for inflation, it made more than any of the “Lord of the Rings”), it spawned three sequels that stretched through the entire decade. But this landmark series is now almost totally forgotten, long eclipsed by the film that so brilliantly spoofed the genre tropes it helped define. In honor of its 40th anniversary, we’re looking back at the “Airport” franchise this week, one film at a time. Today, “Airport ’77” which is basically “The Poseidon Adventure” on a plane.

Airport ’77 (1977)
Directed by Jerry Jameson

Nature of Air Emergency: The maiden voyage of an experimental aircraft from the Stevens Corporation in hijacked en route to an exclusive party. Because really, where better to put a priceless art collection than on the maiden voyage of an experimental airplane? The hijacking goes awry when the plane strikes an oil rig and sinks to the bottom of the ocean in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. Captain Gallagher (Jack Lemmon) has to figure out how to get the plane back to the surface before they run out of air.

George Kennedy Plays: Joe Patroni, Naval Liason to the Stevens Corporation.

11112010_airport3.jpgMost Surprising Subplot: The hijackers in this movie baffle me. These men are smart enough to plan and execute an incredibly elaborate hijacking but dumb enough to let it go awry in a matter of seconds. Only an band of incredibly brilliant criminal minds could infiltrate the security surrounding a corporation’s multimillion dollar jet prototype, assume positions on its flight crew and security team without detection, and fill an entire plane with sleeping gas without succumbing to it themselves. But only a band of functional illiterates could do all that stuff, then fly the plane so low that they clip an oil rig and crash into the ocean. As if to emphasize the fact that these guys are really too dumb to live, two of the three men die almost instantly after the plane hits the rig.

The highs and lows of their criminal techniques are exemplified in an early scene, where one of the men, dressed as a pilot, walks into an airport (we have a title!) and exchanges briefcases with another man at the magazine stand. The handoff shows their skill with disguises and evading security. But it also makes no sense. Why do this at the airport where there’s even a slight risk of detection? Why not go somewhere private and hand off these cases, then show up to the airport with the briefcase you need?

“Airport” Makes No Sense: I’ll buy the plane crashing into the ocean and sinking, even though it probably should float, and I’ll buy that it makes a violent water landing without significantly breaching the hull. But how in the world can it be seen lying at the bottom of the sea from a helicopter several hundred feet above the surface of the water (see photo above)? Had the people who made this movie ever even looked at the ocean?

11112010_airport4.jpgCharacter You Kind of Want To Die: Karen Wallace, played by Lee Grant, is one repellent human being. She tells her husband stuff like “You’ve got a lot of brains Martin, but you’re not a smart man,” and brags about sleeping with his co-worker. When Martin volunteers for a dangerous mission to try to save the passengers, Karen tries to convince him to stay and comfort her instead of acting like a hero. After Martin fails, she starts screaming and crying hysterically; to calm her down a flight attendant has to smack her. Unfortunately, it only takes one punch to knock her out.

Line That Makes You Wonder Whether The Whole Film Wasn’t Just An Informercial Paid For By The Air Travel Industry: “Do you believe that your prototype executive aircraft will revolution both the private and commercial aircraft industries?” – Reporter to Philip Stevens (James Stewart)

Parodied in “Airplane!”: There’s all kinds of out-of-place stuff on the plane in “Airplane!” A topless woman even runs through the cabin at one point. Those are great sight gags but they’re also openly mocking the weird stuff in the “Airport”s. The interior of the Stevens’ plane in “’77” looks like it inspired the production design of “Boogie Nights”: shag carpets, wood paneling, laserdisc player, and even a grand piano. A grand piano! On an airplane! And naturally no one thought to secure it or bolt it down, so when the plane crashes, it starts rolling around and crushing people. Can you believe that putting a friggin’ grand piano on an airplane was a bad idea? I know, crazy.

How Does It Hold Up? By any sane measurement, not very well. Putting an airplane at the bottom of the ocean and letting the pressure rise as the air runs out is a pretty great setup for a thriller, but this is clearly a case of putting the cart before the horse. Getting at airplane to the bottom of the ocean in a plausible way was a complete afterthought.

11112010_airport2.jpgStill, there are some subterranean themes and ideas in “Airport ’77” that make it arguably the most interesting film in the series, even if none of them were put there on purpose. For one thing, the film represents a bit of a time capsule from an era when movies were made primarily for adults rather than kids and teens. Nobody aboard the Stevens prototype is in the “key” demographic of 18-34 years old; it’s all aging Hollywood stars like Joseph Cotton, Darren McGavin, and Olivia de Havilland. The “action hero” is a then 52-year-old Jack Lemmon with a paunch and drastically thinning hair. Nowadays the captain would have to be played by Channing Tatum, and the lead hijacker would be a Robert Pattinson look alike.

“Airport ’77” invites a certain amount of fantasizing about the luxury of this experimental plane as it pours over the details of its lavishly appointed lounge and bar. But the film ends with the ritual (and almost gleeful) destruction of the jet and its excesses. Director Jerry Jameson, a journeyman filmmaker with an enormous resume of forgettable credits, turns that finale into a powerful statement about the inefficacy of wealth. We may have enjoyed imagining ourselves in this paradise of opulence but by the finale we come to realize that such opulence is worthless in the face of death (the advanced age of some of the actors only compounds the film’s haunting sense of mortality). So while this is another goofy “Airport” sequel, it sticks with you in a way that the others do not. That plane at the bottom of the ocean is ridiculous, but it is a chilling image.

Strange But True: The Stevens jet even has its own lounge singer. The chorus of the song he sings: “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder / And that’s what I want to do.”

Monday: “Airport”
Tuesday: “Airport 1975”
Today: “Airport ’77”
Thursday: “The Concorde… Airport ’79”
Friday: “Airplane!”

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…