Written and directed by Ken Finkleman
And so here we are with our final entry in this very long-running series on the disaster cinema of the period 1970-1980—thirty-two reviews in all—over which I hope I've managed a reasonably comprehensive and more-generous-than-usual critical overview of a movement that, whether snobs like it or not, helped defined the decade. I've already repeated myself often enough about what I think it meant, so let us simply say that if you wanted to confirm the stereotype of the 1970s (but not, for being a stereotype, inaccurate) as American filmmaking's longest flirtation with downbeat nihilism, well, you could have a whole lot less fun doing so than watching the 70s disaster film cycle's masterpiece, The Poseidon Adventure.
But hark, we are now in 1982, two years past our indicated period: two years after Irwin Allen's death ride for disaster cinema, When Time Ran Out...; two years after Lew Grade's disaster-adjacent motionless picture, Raise the Titanic; and, most importantly, two years after David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker sealed disaster cinema in its grave, never to reemerge until the 1990s, with their legendary genre spoof, Airplane! But you know what happens when a movie's legendary, especially in the 80s: it gets a sequel.
It is, then, technically out of our ambit—though weirdly enough, as Airplane! had been principally a slapstick comedic remake of 1957's Zero Hour!, it fell instead to Airplane II: The Sequel to spoof the actual plot of 70s disaster cinema's progenitor, 1970's Airport—but knowing that even with all the generosity in the world the concluding years of the cycle would be spotty, I had always planned to finish with a pair of treats for myself, Airplane!, which was obligatory anyway, and its sequel, which I'll readily admit, was intended as pure candy.* I'd seen neither Airplane! nor Airplane II in many years, but then, one doesn't forget Airplane!—I don't mean this as a complaint, but one is not allowed to forget Airplane!, as it's one of the most frequently-referenced works of pop culture of all time. I had forgotten Airplane II, however, except my recollection that I was as fond of it as its predecessor. There's no twist here: that recollection was borne out.
There is, however, a wrinkle: as noted with Airplane!, comedies can be hard to critique beyond "is it funny?", and truly great comedies moreso, for in never failing to be funny they don't even give you the opportunity to discuss their flaws; Zucker-Abrams-Zucker's style of comedy is even harder to talk about, because in its idealized form it's nothing besides infinitely-densely-packed jokes that are more-or-less all successful, and, more difficult still, they're often hilarious simply because they're so surreal. And hence a review of Airplane! that, in (barely) escaping the temptation to just list jokes, was spent instead trying to figure out how, structurally, ZAZ packed them into their purloined plot; how, aesthetically, they told them inside a film frame; and how, taxonomically, one might go about categorizing them, to better understand their interactions. And you can only write that review once.
But is this in fact a ZAZ film? It is, the credits tell us, not. I wasn't even aware of this till only about two months ago, when prepping to watch Airplane II. I'd gone my whole life believing that the makers of Airplane! had, when the time came, naturally doubled-down on their hit, because that was simply what you did, and so obviously the direction blockbuster cinema was trending—the Jawses, the Rockys—that this Airplane! sequel's title takes it into sneering account, in very ZAZ fashion. And though their names are not on the film, they were in fact there on the ground floor. There's much less production history for Airplane II than for Airplane!, but the trio were there for initial development only to eventually decide that really, they'd rather not, whereupon they decamped—along with Airplane!'s breakout star, Leslie Nielsen—to make Police Squad! for TV. But the sequel, or The Sequel, was a foregone conclusion anyway, and Paramount's affiliate producer, Howard Koch, was going to have it made regardless. And so did screenwriter credit and directorial duties alike fall upon Ken Finkleman, a Canadian TV comedy guy, presently coming off of writing the screenplay to another Paramount-produced sequel, Grease 2, and I don't know if ZAZ even knew him.
Airplane II, as its detractors have had it since 1982, is indeed more of the same—even for a parody franchise patterned on the variation-on-a-theme Airports is it an echo of its predecessor, and, with one major exception, I would barely need to edit my summary of Airplane! to get Airplane II's own plot across. But before we get to that, I think it's worth considering what Airplane II is doing with that sameness, and to consider whether or not ZAZ actually had as little to do with it as they made it look as they strategically distanced themselves from what they (correctly) ascertained would be a critically-excoriated underperformer. There's one of two possibilities which must be true, and I'm happy to admit I'm speculating, because either could be true: the first is that Ken Finkleman, while not a particularly gifted scenarist, as on both of his 1982 sequels he just barely remixes the plot of the original, was nevertheless saving all his actual humor for Airplane II and, having put the bare minimum of everything into the characters and situations of his dire screenplay for Grease 2, was now ready to do (and, miraculously, capable of doing) one near-flawless ZAZ impression for Airplane II; the second possibility is that Finkleman's primary job here was to curate a nearly-complete collection of jokes already developed for Airplane II by Airplane!'s creators.
Who knows? Maybe both these things could be true, and if what we wound up talking about on Airplane! was the underlying theory of its comedy, I guess it's inevitable that we'll wind up parsing out Airplane II's comedy DNA and attempting to catalogue the microscopic differences in approach. In respect to Finkleman (such as is due, because I had to watch Grease 2 for this) there are differences. But the basic idea of Airplane II is to take basically all the same set-ups from Airplane! and twist them up with whole new punchlines—alternate endings to the same jokes, new elaborations on the same premises, at least three times as many tits (and in better tit-based jokes!). I would hazard a guess that the endless creativity richly evidenced by the wall of jokes already present in Airplane! meant that a whole lot of good ideas and great ideas still had to be dropped, because there's only so much you can fit into 89 minutes. Airplane II provides indication there might've been enough B-roll for most of a whole other 84, provided it, too, was done with creativity. And it is: one of my favorite small gags in Airplane! is sexually deviant Capt. Oveur (Peter Graves) picking up the latest copy of Modern Sperm at the newsstand; one of my favorite small gags in Airplane II is Father O'Flanagan (James Noble) reading Altar Boy, which elicits a little "ha" but becomes a vastly bigger "ha" when the new elaboration on this essentially-the-same-joke kicks in, and he turns the magazine 90 degrees to check out the centerfold.
So let's get confrontational: I think if you laugh at Airplane! you don't have the right not to laugh at Airplane II—but it might even have a big (extrinsic) advantage over its august predecessor, which is that Airplane II hasn't spent forty years having its jokes quoted and memed, so that for all that it's doing a lot of the same things in similar ways, there's a certain freshness that Airplane! just isn't going to have here in 2023 no matter what. After many years away, Airplane! was still never going to surprise me too much; but after twenty years Airplane II did, just about every time. It says something complimentary that some of my memories I'd falsely attributed to Airplane! instead (I would have sworn under oath that the old lady rotting into a skeleton offscreen during a "boring" flashback was Airplane!); and there was even more that I remembered but I didn't know I'd remembered, till after I'd already laughed. ("Shh!" "Shh!", for example, being completely this film's own, and man, it pulled a rug out from under me.)
Alright, then: the "major exception" I mentioned bringing novelty to Airplane II's plot is that Airplane II is in space, which seems like a very major exception, though the critics of 1982 were not entirely wrong to wonder if it makes much difference. If we're fairer than those critics, though, we can hone in instead on a minor exception, as while the situation is exactly the same—our hero Ted Striker (astoundingly, "STRIKE HER!" is Airplane II's innovation) (Robert Hays) is again separated from his great love, stewardess-turned-technical-officer Elaine Dickinson (Julie Haggerty), and again has he contrived to get aboard a flight with her, and again will their romance be rekindled—but the reasons are different now, because this time Ted didn't go crazy. Riding the wave of fame that his feat in Airplane! afforded him, Ted got himself a brand new job, as the test pilot for the Mayflower 1, a space shuttle—look, guy, it's an Airplane, it can be this silly—but when he discovered how many corners were being cut, he turned whistleblower, and his war record and his general nuttiness were used to smear his name, ultimately resulting in a stay in an asylum named after Ronald Reagan (so that's a new joke, and about as pointedly satirical as either Airplane ever gets, as one can't call the bouncing tits in the "Moral Majority" T-shirt anything but round satire).
But Ted breaks out. Elaine, having moved on and about to wed corporate stooge Simon Kurtz (Chad Everett), believes he's here for her, but that's more of a bonus mission, for what he wants is to stop the Mayflower's flight to the moon, which he fails at, but at least he's on hand to say "I told you so" when the shuttle's artificial intelligence goes haywire, neutralizes Capt. Oveur and the rest of the command crew besides Elaine, and locks them onto a course for the sun. (And as with Airplane!, this is, in fact, a perfectly-unfunny dramatic scenario; Hays even spends the first act playing some halfway dramatically-interesting notes of self-doubt wondering if maybe his crazy has come back, though this naturally arrives in between bouts of, e.g., investigating a jarred-open door on this spacecraft labeled "DANGER VACUUM" and finding himself in a death struggle with a sentient vacuum cleaner hose.) Oh, and adding to Ted's woes, Sonny Bono's aboard with a bomb, intending a suicidal insurance scam, because we're at last actually doing Airport.
So most of the entirely new material here inheres to being in space, and I love how this throws a layer of satire onto the affair, more subtle because it's spread out across the whole feature but even more savage than the Ronald Reagan Asylum thing: two decades before running-on-fumes horror franchises went into space as a joke, Airplane had already done it, and it's almost an open challenge to the early 80s' burgeoning tide of sequels in how utterly frivolous and absurd it renders the proceedings of this sequel—though it's not really that much more frivolous and absurd than, you know, the same family getting attacked over and over again by sharks—and this frivolity and absurdity adds conceptual humor to the franchise's repertoire, despite the traditional Airplane insistence on maintaining a certain emotional seriousness about its stakes with its deadpan performances and melodramatic leads. (I'll note, too, that, unlike Airplane!'s airplane, "space shuttle in trouble" actually does add a brand new disaster to the genre's menagerie.) "Being in space" provides some great jokes, too. It even lets them start with a great joke, a pisstake on a Star Wars opening crawl that degenerates into erotic fiction about space princesses, which frankly feels Mel Brooskier than ZAZesque—a hair-splitting distinction, maybe, but it won't be the last time that feeling comes up (maybe it's just the resemblance to Spaceballs).
Still, as "Star Wars crawl gag" surely implies, "being in space" winds up the primary vector for something that actually was not a very well-represented taxon of joke back in Airplane!, despite that film being generally slotted under "parody," which is specific pop cultural parody. Sometimes this is extremely well-judged: there's a 2001 bit with asphyxiated victims outside the shuttle set to "Blue Danube" that's outstanding. There's several other 2001 bits with the ship's A.I. that perhaps weren't too stale in 1982 but are at least getting there now. There's a whole thing with Graves and the Mission: Impossible theme that as far as I know might be a direct parody of an episode, but since I don't actually know, it merely feels shoehorned in (and this is a nice place to mention Richard Hazard's score is just straight-up worse than Airplane!'s Elmer Bernstein score, only fully effective when it's doing Bernstein's Airplane! cues, or doing cod-James Horner Star Trek). But then, there's... well, you probably know, but I'm not going to spoil it. Still, it's worth admitting that Airplane II, though I consider it pretty much co-equal with its predecessor, does have a slightly lower hit rate, and the biggest reason might be this direct, not-always-apropos spoofery of other media. (Or it might be our returning ground controller, McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges): Bridges is completely game, and Finkleman manages significant funny business with him, but there's a palpable sense that Airplane! really did already take this character to his limit.) Anyway, it's doing more specific parodies, and besides its Zero Hour! foundation, which doesn't count, and some swipes at Airport 1975, Airplane! kept these almost entirely sealed off in Ted's flashbacks.
Of course, in keeping with "the same, but different" angle, Ted has flashbacks here too, and probably my single biggest problem with the film overall is that there's another person's flashback inside one of Ted's flashbacks—that's it, that's my real problem—but if you had a problem with this being in service of the film's single most dangerous feint towards mindlessly repeating Airplane!, I would accept that, because it's a flashback of the actual footage of what may or may not be Airplane!'s signature scene, of the hysterical passenger getting slapped by a line of eager fellows. I still like it, because even at this hazardous extreme, it still does something with its repetition, by having the lady talking about hysteria getting hysterical again so that everybody in the courtroom can slap her out of her flashback to getting slapped. Incidentally, Ted's courtroom flashback also has a wonderful visual gag that, like the "impossibly vast stretch of the instrument panel" from the first film, would, I think, actually work as an expressionist flourish in a "real" movie, framing its prosecuting attorney against a giant jury box with several multiples of "a dozen," which I realized with a sudden guffaw when the attorney stops walking was actually on a conveyor belt.
I'm not sure that Finkleman had the same visual storytelling chops as ZAZ, and if you'd prefer to interpret that as "worse," I could reluctantly concede that's probably true (it's an approximation of quality, but The Naked Gun is undeniably remembered by orders of magnitudes more people than Head Office), but as far as this goes, they just have different emphases. He's less sophisticated: besides the coup of the jury box, there are simply fewer gags that use the frame itself as part of their structure, and he's not as often building comedy by withholding information or by harnessing the fundamental unreality of the offscreen space. On the other hand, and maybe this seems like a weird thing to say considering the last film involved giving a blow-up autopilot head, but Airplane II commits even harder to its anything-goes cartoonishness, and to the fundamental unreality of the onscreen space.
Sometimes this is editing-driven (I'm very, very fond of the "bullshit" sign on the shuttle); sometimes it's set decoration gags about the future (it anticipates the Rocky Large Number sequel joke from Spaceballs); sometimes it's the fourth-wall breaking Ted gets up to (a dangerous move in itself, but it works); sometimes it's taking the "literalized wordplay" gags to their ultimate, and it's a dude turning to jelly because someone said he'd turned to jelly. (The "on instruments" cutaway is like 10% of Airplane!'s comedy, and possibly a full third of this one's.)
So, yeah: humor, subjectivity, I know. But the vast majority of it's asthma-attack hilarious, and just as the energy begins to ebb we arrive in the environs of the lunar destination, where even the less-successful strains of comedy (the direct pop culture parody, in particular) begin succeeding pretty damned hard with comedy's greatest cameo courtesy William Shatner, introduced in a gag that does use a frame to tell it, and also with that "shh!" bit that zeroes in on just one specific silly element of Star Trek that's such a constant fixture on that show it's kind of amazing it could've possibly stuck in someone's craw, which is why it's so funny. The post-credits promise Airplane III ("that's just what they'll be expecting us to do!") though it never happened, if it was ever actually seriously considered—I don't know how this could've been extended to a third entry—and this is undoubtedly for the best. What it leaves us with is a pair of perfect comedy jewels reflecting one another, and if I had to name, not my favorite franchise, but the franchise that I thought maintained the highest average quality, the fact of just these two comic masterpieces puts the Airplanes awfully high in the running.
*That I overlooked the original disaster film parody, 1976's The Big Bus, is just something I'm going to have to rectify sooner or later, so maybe this is only the final entry chronologically.