After a series of very heavy and highbrow films, I was relieved to see that the next film in my instant queue for Netflix was the classic spoof film, Airplane!. I love serious movies and I love to have my brain stimulated to the maximum of its abilities, but every now and then I need to recharge and just sit through a film I can enjoy without having to exhaust my mental facilities. Airplane! was a straight comedy with no social commentary, subtext, boundary pushing moral dialogues, or acid-trip ending (seriously what the hell was “Beyond the Infinite” about in 2001: A Space Odyssey). This film is an all-time classic for a reason and with visual and verbal puns arriving every couple of seconds, Airplane! has aged wonderfully. If you don’t mind comedies that came from a less sophisticated time and where a series of never-ending sight gags was considered a proper way to arrange a film (and you’ve somehow managed to never watch Airplane!), you can’t go wrong by buying a ticket for this flight.

In the late 70’s, disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, and The Towering Inferno (starring a pre-murder O.J. Simpson) were all of the rage, and Airplane! is to those films what the Scary Movie franchise is to modern horror (though actually funny unlike the latter). Former pilot Ted (Robert Hays) boards a last-minute flight to Chicago to convince his stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) not to leave him. Scarred by his experiences in the last war, Ted hasn’t flown since his errors in a combat mission cost seven of his fellow soldiers their lives. It looks like this was the wrong flight to get on when food poisoning disables the pilot (Peter Graves) and the co-pilot (Kareem Abdul Jabar). With the help of Dr. Rumack (Naked Gun‘s Leslie Nielsen), Ted is going to have to fight past his fear of flying (and the zany cast of characters onboard the planet) if he wants any chance to bring this plane down and save everyone on board.

Much like the disaster films it was sending up, this movie featured an all-star cast, and one of the most brilliant decisions of the film was to cast predominantly dramatic actors in many of the film’s smaller bit parts. Watching Peter Graves ask the boy in the cockpit if he had ever seen a grown man naked or been to a Turkish prison worked because Peter Graves played the part perfectly straight. Were it not for the absurd things he was saying, you would have been forgiven for thinking you were watching a dramatic film based on his performance. The same thing goes for Robert Stacks (Unsolved Mysteries) whose cool, commanding voice never winked or conveyed any overt irony to the audience. He simply played it like this was a real situation. I’m a big fan of deadpan delivery and these two were possibly the funniest parts of the whole film. Leslie Nielsen made his career off of this role, but I will always appreciate the subtle and sandpaper dry performances of Peter Graves and Robert Stacks the most. Lloyd Bridges was also great in a smaller role as an air traffic controller who chose the wrong week to give up an absurd number of vices.

Even more than its wonderful cast, what makes Airplane! work 30 years later and what caused it to inspire so much of the parody and gag driven humor to follow was that this movie simply never stops throwing gags at the audience. There are so many tiny little sight gags encoded into each scene that you have to watch the film multiple times just to catch every joke. Not ever bit works, but the film is simply chucking so much humor at its audience that you don’t care. These aren’t the most intellectual jokes either, and if you aren’t familiar with the works it’s parodying, then you’ll miss a lot of the humor, but even 30 years later, there’s so much universally funny humor in this movie that you’ll probably still find something to love here even if you were born during the 90’s (I’m barely still in the 80’s. 1989 represent everybody!). To top it all off, the film remains endlessly quotable from “I’m completely serious, and don’t call me Shirley” to “I speak jive” to “You’re Kareem Abdul Jabar!” to “Do you like to watch movies with gladiators in them?”, there plenty of lines in this film that have remained part of the pop culture lexicon for three decades.

I generally prefer my comedies to be a little darker and a little drier, but when a movie remains as funny as Airplane! all of these years later, I can’t complain. Whether you’re an everyman or a Woody Allen fan, Airplane! is an undisputed classic. While I have to blame it for the terrible spoof revival movement that we had to suffer through during the ’00s, it only goes to show how great the Abrams brothers timing was as the masters of the lowbrow spoof movie. If you’ve managed to go your entire life without seeing Airplane! (and I would really like you to tell me how that happened), then it’s high time you dust off this classic and surely you’ll be impressed. Just don’t call me Shirley.

Final Score: B+

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