Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 2, 2018


The disaster movie genre contains subgenres of its own. Sometimes the disasters are ecological, sometimes they are man-made. They can even be extraterrestrial in nature. One type of emergency that filmmakers would repeatedly find irresistible is the airline disaster, the panic in the sky.  An early example of this particular subgenre is “Zero Hour!” (Yes, with an exclamation point.) Though fairly obscure, the film made a surprisingly strong ripple through cinematic history. Its screenwriter, Arthur Hailey, would later write a similarly themed novel called “Airport.” The film adaptation of that book would ignite the disaster movie fad of the seventies. “Airport,” in turn, beget the parody “Airplane!” The Z.A.Z. spoof, meanwhile, is a direct remake of “Zero Hour!,” using its plot and large swathes of dialogue. The connection between the earlier, serious film and the later parody is so direct that it's almost impossible to watch “Zero Hour!” with a straight face.

Ted Stryker's decorated war record, as a member of the Canadian Air Force, was ruined when he botched a mission and led six pilots to their deaths. Ted remains traumatized by the mistake. Just the sight of an airplane makes him break out in a cold sweat. The stress is ruining his marriage. His wife, taking their young son with her, plans to leave him. He hops on the same plane as her. During the flight, a bad case of food poisoning breaks out. Ted's son is among the sick. When the pilots pass out, Ted is forced to fly the plane. He'll have to overcome his fear of flying if he wants to save everyone's life and patch up his marriage.

Yes, “Airplane!” has retroactively transformed “Zero Hour!” into a comedy. Fans of the comedy classic will recognize many scenes: The shell-shocked pilot forced to fly the plane when everyone gets food poisoning, a young boy invited into the cockpit, the man on the ground regretting quitting smoking., an unsuccessful attempt to calm a panicking woman. Yet even if “Airplane!” hadn't come around, I doubt “Zero Hour!” would be taken very seriously today. This is a pretty silly movie. Making bad fish the root of the disaster is hard to justify. Characters constantly being asked if they had the “meat or the fish” quickly gets giggles. One of the supporting characters is an old man who self-medicates with alcohol. Another is a comic who entertains the little boy with a slightly racist sock puppet. It's all very goofy and contrived.

If you somehow separate “Zero Hour!” from the far-more famous spoof it would inspire, how does the movie hold up? There's not much in the way of tension. Isolating nearly the entire movie to a cramped airplane set makes it hard for the audience to take the threat seriously. It's only in the few scenes when an airplane model is utilized – such as a bit of turbulence, a close call with a mountain, or the skidding-onto-the-runaway climax – that you really get a sense of what's at stake. Hall Bartlett's direction is frequently overwrought. He shows Ted's flashback to the war so often they become a running gag. At one point, he even imagines the speedometer is the spinning propeller of a fighter jet. The love story subplots, between Ted and his wife and the stewardess and her boyfriend, are fairly superfluous.

Most of the names are meaningless to a modern audience but “Zero Hour!” does have quite the star-studded cast. Dana Andrews stars as Ted. Andrews sweats a lot and spends most of the movie in a panicked state, which I guess he does pretty well. Sterling Hayden, forever the voice of psychotic authority in “Dr. Strangelove” to me, appears as Ted's former commander and his man on the ground. Hayden is so rough and hostile to our hero that it becomes comedic. Linda Darnell, of “Forever Amber,” appears as Ted's wife, spending most of the movie panicking about one thing or another. “Zero Hour!” even has some of the stunt-casting that would characterize later disaster movies. Improbably named football pro Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch appears as one of the pilots while pop star Peggy King plays a stewardess.

The various connections to “Zero Hour!” are not just limited to “Airport” and “Airplane!” The film was, itself, based on an earlier movie. Hailey recycled his script for “Flight Into Danger,”  a 1956 Canadian television movie starring James Doohan. Before “Airplane!,” it would receive a straight remake as “Terror in the Sky,” a 1971 TV movie of the week. You'll excuse me if I spent more time during this review talking about other movies. The oddball history of “Zero Hour!” and what it would inspire is ultimately more interesting than the movie itself, a silly and forgettable skybound melodrama. [5/10]

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

*Peggy King recorded a love ballad for the film but, disappointingly, it does not play within the movie.

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