Airport ’77

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Airport ’77
Dir. Jerry Jameson
Premiered March 11, 1977

The Airport movies fascinate me. They fascinate me because nobody likes them, yet everyone knows about them.

Certainly Airport and its sequels benefit from being parodied by Airplane– a movie that even today gets quoted by dorky teenagers. Surely nobody under 30 would ever have heard of 21 Jump Street, a very popular TV show in its own time, if not for the sarcastic 2011 film version. And how many times in the last twenty years had you heard the name Baywatch before seeing the new trailer in front of Rogue One?

But, additionally, what if the traits that should destine these movies into the dustbin of history are precisely what’s keeping them from it? Maybe remembering them is the joke, as with pogs or the Olsen Twins.

In that spirit, I didn’t bother watching the first two Airport movies. That and not wanting to waste time (contrast with the Billy Jack films, all of which I plan to watch out of bile fascination); From what I’ve been able to tell, they’re all the same and all bad. The only things that change are the titular airport and make of airplane (not exactly models of diversity), and the entire cast except for George Kennedy, whose recurring character Joe Patroni keeps changing jobs in an illogical, arbitrary fashion, like Kirk from Gilmore Girls. Kennedy gets the last of the opening credits, a massive, screen-filling Cecil B. DeMille-type credit, but he’s only in one scene here.

The beginning of the film is massively contrived, but at least moves along; and it looks classy; it’s well-shot and features an A-list cast. A wealthy art collector (Jimmy Stewart) invites his family and various associates from Washington, DC to Fort Lauderdale on a customized 747 that would make Sara Netanyahu blush (“Signs This Review Was Written in 2017”). Along with the guests, much of the art itself is being transported to the estate on the plane, which puts its in the crosshairs of a cadre of thieves led by the plane’s own co-pilot (Robert Foxworth), who knock out the passengers with sleeping gas, hijack the plane, and fly it under the radar toward a secret location in the Caribbean. In so doing, they pass through the Bermuda Triangle, an arbitrary portion of the Atlantic Ocean which is famous for its shipwrecks because it has a name, but which air traffic control takes seriously; I know the 1970s were a superstitious decade (“hey girl, what’s your sign?”), but really?

In this effort, the plane clips the antenna of a (way, way) offshore oil rig, loses an engine, and lands at sea. Then, naturally, some boxes of cargo break the plane’s hull open and it sinks. The pressure in the plane is enough to stop it from getting crushed, but time is running out. And this is where the movie hits a brick wall. The heist plot is discarded, the story loses all momentum, and every performance turns into a dull joke, except for Jack Lemmon as the pilot, who bravely tries to find a way to signal for help and rescue the passengers, who include his star-crossed live-in girlfriend (Brenda Vaccaro).

It shouldn’t take me to tell you that Airport ’77 was an obvious ripoff of 1974’s The Poseidon Adventure, the most successful of the many ‘70s disaster films that the original Airport made possible. But it borrows more liberally from other movies in general; which isn’t clear, but you can tell that elements were randomly grabbed from other, similar works. It was very reminiscent of The Sentinel that way, but at least The Sentinel kept some semblance of pace with its randomness. The sets are impressive, the model effects less so, and the star power is wasted. Skip it.

Signs This Was Made in 1977

  • The plane features a videoscreen that plays laserdiscs the size of LPs.

  • The acting-challenged child characters (Anthony Battaglia and Elizabeth Cheshire) play a game of pong against their nanny (Maidie Norman). One of them wears a tiny leisure suit.

  • One of the flight’s guests (Christopher Lee) is trying to stop an impending global famine arising from overpopulation, a major concern at the time that was indeed successfully averted.

  • The United States Military, in full rebuilding-from-Vietnam phase, prominently features the rescue capabilities of the Navy.

Additional Notes
As far as casting is concerned, the ‘70s seem to have a depressingly stacked deck. Almost every studio film so far, regardless of quality, has been stuffed with people who were already famous at the time. By the same token did we get Harvey Korman, Art Carney, and Bea Arthur in The Star Wars Holiday Special. Sometimes I fantasize about traveling back in time to a less data-driven era in filmmaking (which is, in fairness, still not a very data-driven industry) and conning my way to the top, maybe in the silent era or the ‘60s, but even fantasizing about doing that in the ‘70s is impossible.

How Did It Do?
Airport ’77 grossed $30 million against a $6 million budget. It has a 40% rating on RottenTomatoes, and was nominated for two technical Academy Awards (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, the latter of which we will discuss in a much later review). The Airport franchise spawned one final iteration in The Concorde…Airport ’79. Considered the worst of all the Airport films, it failed to make back even its budget and concluded the series.

Next Time: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

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