Directed by John Guillermin
Written by Stanley R. Greenberg (based on the novel Hijacked by David Harper)
In 1970, Airport made a lot of money—like, "still one of the biggest hits of the 70s, even after Jaws and Star Wars are accounted for," that kind of money—and the only surprising thing about what happened afterward was that it took as long as it did for everybody else to start making Airports of their own. Part of that, I expect, was the difficulty in figuring out what it was that made Airport such a zeigeist success, and I don't necessarily blame them for that. Was it the hour of airport procedural? Perhaps the noise lawsuit subplot? There had been thrillers about airplanes since two seconds after the dawn of commercial air travel; what made Airport special? Honestly, I don't know if anyone will ever really know, and for as much as Airport is given the credit for setting off the wave of disaster cinema that would inundate theaters over the following decade, that's only hindsight talking: Airport is prototypical, but of course nobody in the two years after its release knew what it was a prototype for yet.
That code was cracked in a big way later on in 1972: in the December of that year a film would arrive to confirm the disaster genre as a box office powerhouse, and it made Airport's human drama and Hitchcockian suspense look downright arthritic in the process. But, in the meantime, producer Walter Seltzer and MGM saw something exploitable and didn't even bother trying to reverse-engineer it. If they had any inkling of a movement afoot, I guess it must've just been "movies about air crime," because what they came up with was Skyjacked—based, like Airport, on a novel, and while it's impossible to say whether David Harper's book Hijacked was merely published because Airport's film adaptation was a big hit, or if it was actually written because Airport's film adaptation was a big hit, even Skyjacked's source novel postdates the Airport film by a good two months. And so part of me wants to get real reductive about it, and say that Skyjacked is literally just Airport. Christ, it rips off Airport movies that didn't even exist yet, somehow looking into the future and casting Charlton Heston, putting him in pretty much the exact same "heroic pilot" role that Airport 1975 gave him.
Yet for all that, I would much prefer to be charitable. To get it out there, I like Skyjacked—I do not like it as much as I think I could, not precisely because it's avowed programmer trash (I like a lot of avowed programmer trash), but because it's flawed even on the level it would like us to meet it at. Still, you could make a respectable case that it's better than Airport, and for all that the fundamental task of everyone involved was to replicate Airport in every conceivable way, there is the tiniest little glimmer of ambition here, for it's equally clear that Seltzer, director John Guillermin, and screenwriter Stanley Greenberg at least wanted to improve upon the thing they were ripping off. And so Skyjacked comes with just enough tweaks to be interesting, particularly for someone like me, which is to say, a contemptible nerd who doesn't even do film geekery right, and who's deeply invested in mapping out the microscopic gradations of quality between airline disaster movies from the 1970s.
Ah, but there's the rub: because there are also enough differences with Skyjacked that it leaves us with a problem, the kind that forces us to start asking real foundational questions about our little 70s disaster movie retrospective, such as, "hey, what is a disaster movie, anyway?" The syllogism would go a little bit like this: Airport is a disaster movie; Skyjacked is exactly like Airport; Skyjacked is a disaster movie. But syllogisms are only as good as their premises. Airport is maybe really only a disaster movie by tradition—maybe best described as barely a disaster movie, and the biggest difference that Skyjacked brings to table (which is, itself, only barely a difference, namely what it does with its bomb) by rights kind of takes it out of the genre entirely. Which is, to my mind, one major way Skyjacked makes itself interesting as a historical document: by demonstrating that even as late as mid-1972, studios were still blindly fumbling their way back to populist relevance, and it's a lucky thing that a visionary would lead them back into the light in time for Christmas.
But that's a story for next time, and as for how Skyjacked is interesting in itself, that's mostly in how it's been built almost as piece of film criticism—a preposterous thing to say, but there it is—and what little reverse-engineering Seltzer and company did perform all seems to have gone to figuring out what somebody might have disliked about Airport, and getting rid of it. Most crucially, Skyjacked jettisons Airport's magisterial pace and, for the most part, its interwoven tapestry of subplots. Instead, it gets us to the bomb thriller almost immediately—absolutely no more than fifteen minutes have passed before Elly Brewster (Susan Dey) finds the terrorist's note written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror, and I think it's more like ten—whereas by this time in Airport I'm pretty sure Burt Lancaster hadn't even gotten to work yet. Elly brings this to the attention of the chief flight attendant, Angela Thatcher (Yvette Mimieux), who in turn informs the captain, Hank O'Hara (Heston), and for a spell O'Hara is confronted with the mystery of who the bomber must be. At first, he's at a loss for suspects, because it's probably not Brewster. It's probably not Senator Arne Lindner (Walter Pidgeon, whose minimal participation here is, along with Claude Akins in a one-scene role as a military ground controller, the closest we get to the "all-star cast" model introduced by Airport, another little way Skyjacked diverges). It's probably not the senator's son Peter (Nicholas Hammond), either, nor jazz cellist Gary Brown (Roosevelt Grier), nor expectant mother Harriet Stevens (Mariette Hartley). However, when prompted, O'Hara realizes it could be the obvious madman, Jerome Weber (a young James Brolin, just coming out of TV), a traumatized vet who has decided to take this plane to Anchorage, for reasons that never quite seem rational, nor, one gathers, are they meant to be.
Still, that's another distinction right there: instead of a pathetic insurance fraudster trying to disappear into his seat, we get a raving lunatic, downright bursting with enthusiasm over his evil plot and eager to tell you all about it even if it makes very little sense, and you're apt to listen to him because he has an unpinned grenade. Skyjacked gets a lot more adversarial than its predecessor, then, and finds ample convolutions in its scenario to fill out its time (cliché convolutions, of course—the FBI man who gets aboard during refueling, and whose precipitous intervention just provides another problem for the hero to solve; the pregnant woman who isn't due for weeks but, get this, goes into labor when the crisis reaches its climax; whatever the hell it is we're supposed to make out of the deeply-backgrounded love triangle between O'Hara, Thatcher, and O'Hara's co-pilot—but y'know, we're not in a genre that would necessarily benefit from trying to avoid clichés). Meanwhile, Guillermin does a hell of a job putting this mechanical plot through its paces, not with a surfeit of imagination, but with a lot of energy, and he and cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. get downright gritty, shooting with a feverishly mobile camera and an emphasis on acute compositions and uncomfortable 'Scope three-shots and even more uncomfortable close-ups (as well as a startling number of whip-pan transitions between them). Veteran editor Robert Swink (William Wyler's main dude), finds his way easily into both the 1970s' tendency toward much more staccato cutting rhythms and Guillermin's goals for the project, and the two get practically primitivist with the way they jam shots and angles together. (They kick off the plot with the kind of gambit that's either genius or terrible, but is at least objectively impossible not to have feelings about: a series of POV blast-ins onto the bullet-like containers of lipstick at the airport cosmetics counter.) Skyjacked is not interested in "escalating" its tension, at least not on a formal level—it starts at 11 and mostly stays there—but in terms of bullying their way through a film that virtually revels in being nothing besides a shabby thriller, that consistently-furious style actually works rather well.
The acting is good enough to get us to where we need to be—the make-up artists and the glasses of water they keep throwing in the actors' faces, maybe moreso!—and Guillermin imposes a tremendous sense of clocks ticking, nerves fraying, and panic curdling into cold dread, ultimately arriving at a terrifically sweaty, even ugly place that serves this plot just about as well as it could possibly be served. (And this clammy claustrophobia is no mean feat, considering he forgets about economy class just about the instant it's mentioned. Clearly of a mind that trying to deal with the crowded coach section would make the movie entirely unmanageable, he puts them on ice and remembers them maybe twice throughout the whole feature, and then only in insert shots that exist in a parallel dimension to what's happening to our actual characters in first class—or "actual characters," if you'd prefer, though Grier is solid, and even Mimieux is acting for a change.)
Heston's no exception to the general rule of "sweatier, uglier" as the movie proceeds (and Brolin is damn near a renewable source of oil by the finale), but Giullermin is wise enough to recognize that this is very much his show, and privileges him in ways that Dean Martin probably would've resented being privileged in Airport. It's minor Heston, to be sure (Heston shall appear in no fewer than five of the movies on our list, and every one of them is "minor Heston"), but it's good Heston, using the basics of his screen persona to develop a sturdy archetype, with O'Hara committing to a strategy of de-escalation, that, in Heston's more passionate lunges, punches through the screenplay and into a genuine theme of humanism that arguably wasn't even there before Heston seized on it. It is a quieter Heston performance, nonetheless—by necessity, because he can't spend the entire time shouting at the man with the bomb—but what that means is a lot of roiling energy under the surface that is extremely useful for a boxed-in thriller like this.
There are other little things the movie does well, like the varied score by Perry Botkin Jr. (not a classic of film scoring, but the opening credits theme is fucking fantastic, a march that mutates into jazz-funk halfway through; it sounds like something Tarantino would love). It also does some nice big things, especially its aerial photography that continually underlines the baseline reality of the situation (as Ross Hunter had with Airport, Seltzer rented a Boeing 707, but Seltzer got his money's worth, so you can mark "absence of cheap models and dry ice" under the "unambiguously better than Airport" column). There are medium-sized things that Skyjacked does poorly: God only knows why Greenberg thought flashbacks were a good idea in the first place, but Guillermin jams them in with horrific artlessness and tonal dissonance, and while Weber's fantasy-tinged reveries of heroism are merely bad, O'Hara's are indistinguishable from the so-serious-they're-hilarious pieces of cod-dramatic soap opera that Airplane!'s flashbacks got up to eight years onward, presumably as a parody of precisely this movie, except Airplane!'s flashbacks are still much more legitimately emotionally investing.
And finally there is one big thing it does wrong, even after it's already arrived at a strong, stereotypically-grim 70s ending (that could've been even grimmer, and the 70s complexion of this thing works extremely well in its favor to keep you wondering just how grim it might get). Guillermin handles his finale expertly at first, foreshadowing it with a punishing gloominess: there's one shot that is completely silent—even ambient noise is torn out—but speaks volumes with the violence incipient in its image, and that shot should have signaled the last ninety seconds of the movie. Instead, Guillermin stretches that last scene out endlessly, and well beyond its limits, accumulating incident that doesn't need to be in the movie at all, and rather than getting sucker-punched by the ending that we've been hurtling toward with grave inevitability, we start wondering when he'll wrap the damn thing up. It's not quite fatal (it eventually gets there), but it does degrade a movie that, in its last minutes, had kind-of sort-of started to develop some genuine power in its early snapshot of the derangements of American life in the 1970s. It's not that kind of movie, of course, and never really was, so best to accept it as what it is, which is a nervy little thriller that was never going to be remembered, let alone celebrated, but did its job with gusto anyway.