Long before the Wayans brothers kicked off a movie trend by poking fun at other movie trends, there was ZAZ comedy, affectionately named after the unique blend of humor from Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker. After the success of 'Kentucky Fried Movie,' with John Landis directing, the team went on to quite literally make a name for themselves with the hilarious spoof 'Airplane!' Its juvenile jabs, unscrupulous low-blows, and unexpected cracks at disaster movies, in particular the 'Airport' series, took audiences by surprise and quickly became one of the most popular movies ever made.
Today, it continues to enjoy that same level of recognition from contemporary moviegoers despite many of the jokes seeming a bit dated or quaint instead of funny. While several of the gags still deliver a gut-busting reaction, many others unfortunately don't hold up as well, although the chuckles and maybe a few guffaws remain. But rather than blame the movie or its age — it's over 31 years old now — it's all very likely due to repeat viewings and several of its lines entering our cultural consciousness possibly starting to take their toll. Knowing when each joke is about to be delivered probably doesn't help either.
Besides, the real brilliance behind the film is not only in the endless absurdity or the slapstick parodies — though that does play a significant role in its lasting enjoyment. There's no doubt about that. But part of the fun is in watching how the script cleverly and very intuitively breaks down genre convention to its simplest form. For this, the Zucker-Abrahams production wittily borrows from the 1957 action drama 'Zero Hour!' down to the names for the two leads. Now it makes sense why Ted Striker (Robert Hays) keeps referring to "the war" without naming which one.
In doing this, the trio also effectively exposes how the same formula, or at least something similar to it, has been recycled over the decades. As our unwitting hero, Striker is haunted by a past mistake, one which appears to be ruining his relationship with others. The time will come, of course, when he'll be able to prove he still has some chutzpah in him and win back the love of his lady friend, Elaine (Julie Hagerty). Hilariously, he's given this miraculous opportunity when several of the passengers, including the cockpit crew, fall deathly ill after eating the fish for dinner.
Not every movie follows this structure to the letter, but its variations are essentially this neatly packaged recipe for action-adventure movies which funnily continues to be enjoyed today. And 'Airplane!' makes the whole thing look rather brainless and preposterously half-baked, almost as if poking fun at the audience for even paying to see such clichéd dribble. The only thing that separates one disaster flick from the next is the ensemble cast of well-respected actors, where once again the trio of talented filmmakers strikes the right notes for laughter.
Most fans are sure to agree Leslie Nielsen is the headliner on the list of side-splitting performances, and his Dr. Rumack is definitely one of the more memorable characters of the film. His deadpan humor and timing is unparalleled, marking a turning point in his career that has rightly made him into one of the most beloved comedians in Hollywood history. But also joining him on this absurd ride is the outrageously wonderful Lloyd Bridges as the high-strung tower supervisor and Peter Graves of 'Mission: Impossible' fame going completely against type as a pilot that makes several eye-popping remarks to little Joey. Then there's also Robert Stack, who will forever be the host of 'Unsolved Mysterious' as far as I'm concerned, in his stern, serious self. Personally, I still crack up at seeing Barbara Billingsley, best known as June Cleaver of 'Leave It to Beaver,' talk jive.
Jumping from one joke to the next with very little time to rest in between the laughs, the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team created a hilarious, non-stop parade of satirical jabs at disaster films. Their juvenile sense of humor actually works because the trio throws together some discerning smarts in their deconstruction of the genre. For that, 'Airplane!' continues to be watched and enjoyed as one of the funniest and most creative comedy spoofs ever made.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment brings 'Airplane!' to Blu-ray in similar packaging as their "Don't Call Me Shirley" DVD release, but exclusively available at Best Buy stores. The Region Free, BD50 disc comes inside a blue eco-case with a lenticular cardboard slipcover and new cover art. When in the player, the disc goes straight to the main menu which imitates airplane safety pamphlets with animated scenes from the movie.
'Airplane!' makes a smooth landing unto Blu-ray with a strong and often great video presentation. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the AVC-encoded transfer comes with good definition and textural details throughout.
For a 31-year-old film, the picture quality looks rather fantastic, with clean, resolute lines on clothing and the 70s interior of the airplane. Facial complexions are healthy and revealing, exposing wrinkles and other minor blemishes on the faces of actors. The color palette leans closer to the secondary hues with lots of browns and soft yellows, but the primaries still shine through with life and are cleanly rendered. Contrast isn't all that bright, but it's consistent and provides excellent visibility of background objects. Black levels are quite attractive and surprisingly deep, but lose some of their luster in a couple scenes.
All together, the comedy classic lands with a very fine and satisfying high-def image.
Accompanying the video is this equally enjoyable DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that does tremendously well with the original elements without sounding artificial or forced.
Most apparent is the light activity in the rears, which consist mostly of a few echoes, some musical cues and the thunderstorm. The discrete effects nicely enhance the soundfield and never seem to call attention to their use. In the fronts, we have an engaging and welcoming soundstage that's full of energy and lots of madcap nonsense. Dialogue reproduction is superb and right on the money, making every ridiculous deadpan joke and silliness perfectly audible. Dynamic range is sharply detailed while the low-end is put to mild use.
Overall, it's a better than expected lossless mix and a clear upgrade that's loads of fun.
The same supplements from the "Don't Call Me Shirley" edition are carried over for this Blu-ray release.
Often mentioned as possibly the funniest movie ever made, 'Airplane!' still delivers a barrel full of gut-busting laughs, but several jokes are starting to wane into hearty chuckles. The wild, zany spoof on disaster films transformed ZAZ comedy (Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker) into a brand of satirical humor, one which can clearly be seen in many movies today. Yet, this 1980 box-office smash remains one of the most admired and funniest of the bunch. The Blu-ray comes with a much-improved audio and video presentation that fans will definitely enjoy, but the supplements are identical to previous DVD editions. Overall, it's a strong package worth picking up if you want a good laugh.