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Sunday, May 6, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Airport 1975 (1974)

Despite being the enormous blockbusters of their day, the seventies disaster movie trend spawned very few sequels. I guess the same sort of massive catastrophe striking the same group of characters a second time was too much of a stretch, even for Hollywood. But there was one major exception. “Airport” was a big hit for Universal Studios and they were clearly eager to capitalize on that. I guess the idea of airline emergencies (and George Kennedy showing up each time) was general enough that audiences weren't too put off. “Airport 1975,” confusingly released in 1974, would be the first of three separate sequels to the prototypical seventies disaster movie. In many ways, it's the most iconic of the series and would largely define the franchise in the public's mind.

It all begins as a normal flight. A Boeing 747 leaves Dulles International Airport for L.A. There's plenty of drama aboard the plane. Chief-stewardess Nancy is considering ending her relationship with Captain Alan Murdoch, who is only interested in sex. A young girl, awaiting a life-saving kidney transplant, is aboard the plane. So is movie star Gloria Swanson, currently dictating her autobiography. Nobody is aware that a small personal aircraft is flying the same way. After foggy conditions roll in, an emergency landing is ordered. That's when the pilot of the smaller aircraft suffers a heart attack. The plane collides with the passenger jet, killing two of the three pilots. It's up to Captain Murdoch and Joe Patroni to make sure the plane can safely make it to its destination before it's too late.

“Airport 1975” is, if nothing else, a noticeable improvement over the first “Airport.” Though still pretty slow by modern standards, it doesn't have quite the glacial pace the first one did. Cutting the run time down to an hour and forty-seven minutes, as opposed to over two hours, helps with that. We're in the air a little faster. As opposed to a threat that is briefly referenced a few times before exploding in the back of the plane, there's a huge hole in the vehicle for almost the whole movie. The action, where people are sucked out or fall to their deaths from the plane, is a little bigger. There's still not quite enough plot for a movie this big, as things drag a little in the middle. However, this “Airport” feels more like a screaming jumbo-jet, instead of a stalling bi-plane.

The lead characters are a little more likable too. There's still a romance between a captain and a stewardess that is hitting a bumpy stretch. At least nobody is cheating on their wife this time. Helping factors are the actor's cast. Charlton Heston was the matinee king of the late 60s/70s for a reason. The leathery god has charisma to spare. Heston's ability to make the most mundane activities captivating is helpful, since Murdoch spends most of the movie talking into a radio. Karen Black plays Nancy. While the slightly sexist script leaves Nancy dependent on the men around her, Black brings a grounded, likable vulnerability to the part. Letting George Kennedy graduate from supporting role to secondary protagonist was wise. Kennedy's gruffness is endearing in a crotchety old man sort of way.

The wacky supporting players were a highlight of the first “Airport.” The filmmakers clearly understood this, as the sequel's entire supporting cast is made up of colorful characters. The number of eccentric old ladies played by Hollywood icons is upped to two: Myrna Loy plays a blissful alcoholic and Gloria Swanson appears as a slightly exaggerated version of herself.  The movie is stacked with television and comedy icons. Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller, and Mr. Roper appear as a trio of old friends. (Stiller gets one of the film's best gags.) Larry Storch is amusing as Loy's chatty seat neighbor. Erik Estrada and Sharon Gless have bit parts. The most ridiculous, and therefore most entertaining, subplot involves Helen Reddy's singing nun and Linda Blair's sickly young girl. And in a probably unintentional in-joke, “Zero Hour!'s” Dana Andrews appears as the elderly pilot who dies behind the controls, kicking off this whole mess.

While the first “Airport” was a pretty dull affair all the way through, the 1975 edition actually manages to generate some actual tension in its last act. A daring rescue by a parachutist on a zip-line is attempted, which ends up going wrong in a nicely unexpected way. That's probably the movie's biggest stunt and, save for some shifty special effects, it's convincing. Even after the passenger jet reaches the L.A. Airport, the crisis isn't quite over. The climax involves the jet's inability to come to a sturdy landing. It's a nice note to take us out on and makes the film's happy ending feel earned.

Unsurprisingly, “Airport 1975” was poorly reviewed by critics. Unlike the first film, it would receive no Oscars, not even a nomination. The film would pop up in two separate books about the worst movies ever made. (To the authors of those book, I suggest you see more movies.) It would also provide plenty of grist for “Airplane!” However, audiences still enjoyed it and made it the seventh highest grossing film of the year. Not quite ridiculous enough to be an object of camp devotion, “Airport 1975” is still a reliably entertaining popcorn muncher with a fun cast and one or two suspenseful moments. [7/10]

[X] Awards Bait Ballad
[] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

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