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40 Years Later: Airplane

29 August 20 words: Zach Harrison

Non-stop laughs from the parodic cult classic that launched Leslie Nielsen's comedic career…

Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker
Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Running time: 87 minutes

Parody is a concept as old as time. As long as there are popular things, they will be parodied; take a look at the long running success of US sketch show Saturday Night Live, for example. Disaster films are perfect material to be parodied, with their cliche storylines and overacting characters. A popular genre throughout the 20th century, they became particularly prominent in the seventies with films such as The Poseidon Adventure and Airport. Airplane played brilliantly on the tropes of the genre, giving serious actors serious lines, but putting them in the most ridiculous scenarios.

For those of you who haven’t seen or heard of the film (what have you been doing?), the basic premise is this: a flight goes badly wrong after dodgy food poisons half of the passengers and the cockpit crew. The only chance of landing lies in the hands of a former army pilot who hasn’t flown for years.

New kids on the block Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker wrote and directed it, having never before done so with a feature length film. Having started out as comedians, Airplane marked the trio’s transition into directing, with it becoming something of a box office smash.

Having grossed $158 million worldwide during its run in cinemas, Airplane received widespread critical acclaim, with critics praising its quotable lines and childish sense of humour.

Speaking of which, there are too many quotables to mention. Every character has a great line at one point or another, with most having numerous. A highlight for myself would be the running “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking” gags on behalf of Lloyd Bridges’ air traffic controller. Quite honestly though, all of the characters have at least one zinger, delivered perfectly by the actor playing them.

Considering it was their directorial debut, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker deployed their cast perfectly. Veterans like Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen played their parts straight, as they would have done in a serious movie, and it’s this graveness amongst the absurdity which contributes to making the film so hilarious.

Displays a fantastic knack for comedic timing

The old hands weren’t the only ones delivering with their performances, however. Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty, playing the star-crossed lovers, both debuted on the big screen with Airplane. They succeeded not only in providing some hilarious moments, but also both gave performances that would slot right into the disaster movies Airplane is lampooning.

A special mention goes to basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another actor of whom Airplane was one of their first films, who played Peter Graves’ co-pilot. The fourth-wall-busting scene where a young basketball fan recognises the co-pilot as Abdul-Jabbar results in hilarity, ending in him grabbing the kid by his collar and maligning his LA Lakers teammates after the kid blurted out his fathers opinions on how lazy Abdul-Jabbar was.

Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, in both their writing and directing, display a fantastic knack for comedic timing in the film. Whilst the actors played their parts well, if it weren’t for the vision of the trio of directors and writers then there would have been no parts to play. Following Airplane, they went on to direct a couple more films together before going their separate ways.

All three had success following the separation, although to varying degrees. Jerry Zucker directed the 1990 raunchy romantic thriller Ghost with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, which was an absolute blockbuster. Meanwhile, his brother David continued directing spoof films with the Naked Gun series, cementing Leslie Nielsen’s status as deadpan comedy extraordinaire. Jim Abrahams also did so, finding success with the Hot Shots series.

Airplane is one of those generational films that everyone enjoys. Some of the gags are so silly that you can’t help but laugh, but that’s what makes it endearing. Ask anyone you know if they like the film, and I would be astounded if someone didn’t. And if they don’t know the film? Make them watch it. I am serious.

Did you know? The announcers who have an argument about the white and red parking zones at the airport were the same people who made the actual announcements at Los Angeles International Airport. They were also married in real life.

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