2020 Film Essays

The Disaster Area: From ‘Airport’ to ‘Airplane!’ – Part Four

Airplane! Movie Film

In 1976, the apex of the disaster film’s popularity, Paramount Pictures produced a comedy that would parody the genre, one which involved a disgraced vehicle driver with a dark past (who also has a troubled relationship with a stewardess) conscripted to pilot a big unwieldy craft in trouble. If that sounds familiar, check the release date: the description is that of The Big Bus, a film that acts as more of a disaster movie with comedy rather than a clever parody of the disaster film. Written by two sitcom veterans (Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen) and directed by James Frawley (who would direct 1979’s The Muppet Movie after), The Big Bus did fairly well at the box office, and exaggerated the already outsized disaster genre in a way that was more knowing in retrospect — several of its characters (like a veterinarian and an onboard lounge musician) would actually turn up in the following year’s Airport ‘77. Yet despite its modest performance, The Big Bus wouldn’t be the disaster movie parody that captured the absurdity of the genre nor would gain a huge amount of popularity all its own. That would be Paramount’s next comedy about a pilot, a stewardess, and a crisis onboard a craft, 1980’s Airplane! Yet perhaps Airplane! wouldn’t have made the huge splash that it did were it not for the fact that the disaster movie itself had crashed and burned several times over just prior to that film’s release, burying the genre for a whole decade.

The descent had begun with the lackluster disaster offerings in 1978, but the release of the fourth and final Airport movie — the series that started it all — confirmed that there was no pulling up from the genre’s crash landing. The Concorde… Airport ‘79 is an attempt by series producer Jennings Lang to further stretch the concept of the original film (not to mention the novel it was based on) to increasingly incredulous places. Knowing he had bigger, more varied and more spectacular special-effects blockbusters to compete with, Lang (along with yet another TV veteran in the director’s chair, David Lowell Rich) concocted a film written by Eric Roth involving the titular passenger jet, a returning Patroni (George Kennedy), a cavalcade of stars (including Alain Delon) and a gloriously ridiculous plot that sees an industrialist played by Robert Wagner make numerous insane attempts to destroy the Concorde just because one passenger (a news woman played by Susan Blakely) has some incriminating documents. It’s the logical endpoint of a series (never mind a genre) whose continual heightening led it to land just this side of pure fantasy — the shoddy visual effects are handled by Universal Pictures’ in-house TV FX team who were working on Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century at the same time (yet hadn’t had to reckon with compositing against a blue sky rather than black). The Concorde… Airport ‘79 is an unintentional hoot, an unabashed popcorn entertainment that is only held back by presenting itself as realistic, serious drama. It’s a shame that Lang attempted to compete with the sci-fi properties of that day, as he might’ve found easier success leaning into the comedy. 

The Concorde... Airport ‘79

Of course, competing against the rising tide of sci-fi epics was highly tempting in 1979, with Star Wars still making a killing at the box office (and new contenders like Alien coming along), so it makes sense that an attempt to combine the sci-fi movie with the disaster film was made. That attempt, Meteor, concerns an ingeniously simple premise that will no doubt sound very familiar to 90s disaster film fans: a giant meteor dubbed “Orpheus” is wrenched from an asteroid belt and sent hurtling toward Earth, causing NASA scientists Paul (Sean Connery) and Harry (Karl Malden) to try and convince the government that the U.S.A.’s secret nuclear missile satellite must be used to destroy it before it destroys the planet. The film becomes largely about detente between the U.S. and Russia, with Natalie Wood’s Russian interpreter and her astrophysicist boss being a major part of defeating the meteor, impressively telling a deeper story than just acting as a showcase for special effects set-pieces. It’s a lucky thing, too, since those set-pieces are horribly inept — when the original effects team delivered sequences not to the production’s liking, reshoots with new teams were ordered, but the budget never increased, leaving the resulting sequences of disaster looking charmlessly cheap. To add insult to injury, a scene where one of the splinters of the meteor causes an avalanche uses leftover footage from 1978’s Avalanche, with that film already a low budget affair. Even director Ronald Neame, who had guided The Poseidon Adventure to huge success and helped solidify the genre, couldn’t make disaster magic strike twice. The concept was solid and eventually redeemed by Armageddon and Deep Impact (both 1998), but Meteor fell to Earth with a thud. It seemed the disaster film was doomed to failure. 

As proof, the once self-proclaimed “master of disaster,” Irwin Allen, suffered two consecutive blows at the box office, sending the disaster movie into hibernation and killing his feature film career. In 1979, he made the only other sequel to a 70s disaster movie aside from the Airport films, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. As sequels go, the movie has a fairly decent concept for revisiting the original film, seeing a mixed crew of salvagers (Michael Caine, Karl Malden and Sally Field) along with a shady captain of a supposed medical rescue boat (Telly Savalas) literally go in the hole in the boat that the first movie’s survivors escaped out of in search of treasure and more survivors. They find both, but have trouble escaping the rapidly sinking boat, in large part because Savalas’ character turns out to be a murderous terrorist. Allen fares much better in the director’s chair here than he did in The Swarm, and stages some decently suspenseful sequences reminiscent of the original franchise-starter. Nonetheless, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure was poorly received by critics and audiences alike, probably due to a mixture of disaster fatigue, a distaste for sequels (something that would change in a big way during the 80s) and perhaps the fact that Allen and screenwriter Nelson Gidding stumble upon a great new idea that they steer away from at every turn, that being a group of people fighting a barrage of bad guys while trapped in a single location. If only they’d leaned into it, they might’ve been credited with inventing the 80s action movie a year early.

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure Movie Film

A similar lack of savvy plagued Allen’s next and final theatrical disaster film, When Time Ran Out… (1980). The last of Allen’s productions created post-Poseidon to get made, the film is based on the novel The Day the World Ended by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. Where the novel was a non-fiction account of the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902, the reduced budget for the film caused it to be adapted by screenwriters Carl Foreman and Sterling Silliphant to take place in modern day. Allen was banned from the director’s chair by Warner Bros., handing the reins over to James Goldstone (who had helmed numerous episodes of Allen’s TV shows as well as 1977’s disaster-esque Rollercoaster), and the typically star-studded cast (including disaster veterans Paul Newman, William Holden and Jacqueline Bisset) showed up mostly out of contractual obligation to Allen. As with Meteor, the budget meant that the effects couldn’t deliver what the film promised, leaving the movie’s third act as an extended setpiece that would’ve been a minor sequence in any one of Allen’s earlier productions. Even worse, Warners cut the movie down considerably, destroying all semblance of character or pace, putting the most emphasis on the effects sequences that simply weren’t up to par. Far from the epic failure of The Swarm, When Time Ran Out…  doesn’t even get the honor of sending the disaster genre of the 70s out with a bang, but rather closes it with a whimper. 

Despite the inevitable fate of the disaster film, its demise did allow for a wholly new genre to emerge and flourish: the absurdist parody comedy. Before 1980, most studio comedies had been situational, their jokes coming from more traditional sources of putting funny people in stock circumstances. Parodies were fairly new thanks to the work of Mel Brooks, whose pioneering films like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (both 1974) put funny people into classic cinematic genres. Yet it was three filmmakers from Wisconsin — Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker — who would hit upon the magic formula for parodies going forward. Airplane! took predominantly dramatic actors, put them in a virtual remake of an already existing movie (1957’s Zero Hour!, in this case) and had them deliver and deal with a non-stop series of outrageous, surreal gags without any attempt to ground them in structure or form. What undoubtedly helped Airplane’s success is the fact that it piggybacked onto the disaster film fatigue of the time, perfectly sending up the bloated ridiculousness always inherent in the genre but rarely intentionally played for laughs before. It’s natural that ZAZ would pick the Airport series to lampoon, but they arrived at that target almost by accident: when they hit upon Zero Hour! as their building block for the film, making the connection to the Airport series was unavoidable, as Zero Hour!, like Airport, was based on a novel by Arthur Hailey. As such, Airplane! feels like it could be Airport ’80, telling a story about a washed up war pilot (Robert Hays) attempting to win back his stewardess girlfriend (Julie Hagerty) mid-flight when a sudden case of food poisoning (an actual plot point from Zero Hour!) cripples most of the passengers and crew, leading the pilot to try and land the plane with assistance from professionals on the ground. That structure is also loosely the structure of Airport ’75, and ZAZ lean into the connection, parodying several characters and sequences from that film (which was veering close to parody itself). The filmmakers even borrowed actual dialogue from Hailey’s original Airport novel for bits, such as an argument between a married couple of public address announcers. Their spoofing of the disaster genre as a whole is no fluke — ZAZ’s first film, the John Landis-directed Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), contained a sketch which is a parody trailer of disaster films entitled “That’s Armageddon.” Airplane! plays like a feature-length version of such, adding several parodies of both classic Hollywood tropes and then-timely trends and pop culture references along the way, stirring it all up into a blissfully unhinged stew. Airplane! wasn’t the first disaster parody — even after The Big Bus, no less than Steven Spielberg attempted to skewer the genre with 1941 (1979), though that film became more of a genuine disaster movie than spoof. It took ZAZ to deliver the final blow — even if Jennings Lang had continued the Airport series in 1982, which he originally planned to do, it would’ve been a futile effort. Airplane! gleefully made sure the nails in the disaster film’s coffin were secure. 

Airplane! Movie Film

After a chain of critical and commercial failures, as well as Airplane’s kick in the butt on the way out, surely the disaster film was never to return. Yet that would turn out not to be the case (and don’t call me Shirley). While the genre was indeed dormant throughout the 1980s, the trend made a resurgence in the 1990s thanks to a number of factors, primarily the mega-success of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). That film’s disaster-adjacent concept, as well as its pioneering of blending practical effects with CGI, allowed filmmakers to bring back the disaster film proper (such as 1996’s Daylight and Twister), revamps of poorly received prior disaster efforts (the aforementioned asteroid films, along with 1997’s Dante’s Peak and Volcano) and new combinations of other genres with the disaster movie (best seen in Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi Independence Day from 1996 and monster movie Godzilla from 1998). It’s the success and popularity of these films that has allowed the genre to continue to this day, becoming a staple of the blockbuster movie landscape. Yet it’s entirely likely that the genre would not have returned, nor remained popular, were it not for that period in the 1970s, a time when disaster — in a good way — reigned.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.