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.
Most 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?
Character 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.
Still, 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.”