Synopsis of Movie

In their freshman directorial effort, Jim Abrhams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker didn't just make a film. They created a genre. 1980's Airplane! took the movie parody and made it an institution. This comedy classic aimed a satirical eye at the Irwin Allen-esque disaster movie trend of the 1970’s, specifically taking on the ever-popular Airport series. It succeeded in a major way thanks to its revolutionary, rapid machine-gun style of comedy. The Zucker Brothers were relentlessly willing to do anything for a laugh, making Airplane! an instant box office success and spawning a cottage industry of parody films in the decades to follow.

The plot begins in classic disaster-movie style. Ex-Navy pilot Ted Stryker boards a flight in hopes of winning back his girlfriend, a stewardess named Elaine. After the introduction of the plane’s crew and passengers, including a critically-ill, teenaged heart-patient, the story kicks in as a virus sparked by the ‘bad fish’ from the in-flight meal makes several people on board violently ill… including the pilots.

Ted is only person on board who can fly the plane, but he vowed never to fly again after a Navy mission that went disastrously wrong. Ted overcomes his traumatic memories with the help of a former colleague, speaking with him from an air traffic control tower, and with Elaine as his co-pilot.

Although this story sounds pretty serious, it serves as the springboard for a non-stop barrage of hilarious gags delivered at an unstoppable pace. For instance, there is Ted’s “drinking problem” (he pours drinks into his forehead instead of his mouth). When Ted flashes back to the night he met Julie at a bar, the scene turns into a wicked parody of Saturday Night Fever. Some of the gags are positively surreal, especially the two passengers who only speak in ‘jive talk’ and are given subtitles so the viewer can understand them.

There are also a number of hysterically-funny supporting roles that lend themselves to comedic moments. A good example is Kramer, Ted's hot-headed former commanding officer who is called in to help him land the plane via radio. When he is approached by donation-collecting Moonies at the airport, he beats them up kung-fu style. There is also McCroskey, the grizzled air-traffic controller with too many substance abuse problems to mention, and Captain Oveur, a pilot who is obsessed with ‘gladiator movies’ and ‘Turkish baths.’ And then there's Doctor Rumack, the deadly-serious physician who takes anything that anyone says to him literally. A good example:

Ted Striker: “Surely you can’t be serious.”
Dr. Rumack: “I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley”.

Airplane! was a smash hit and made over $80 million in the U.S. alone. It also led to a sequel, appropriately titled Airplane II: The Sequel, that was built around a disastrous flight involving a Space Shuttle. Airplane! also went on to a long life in cable and on home video. It continues to be popular today, as catchphrases like “Don’t call me Shirley!” and “Looks like I picked the wrong time to quit…” have become a permanent part of hipster lingo.

The film also gave Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack) a notable career boost. Nielsen eventually became quite a parody film stalwart, re-teaming with the Zucker brothers several times for The Naked Gun film series and also appearing in parodies like Spy Hard and Wrongfully Accused. Meanwhile, the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams went on to careers that produced a cavalcade of hits like Top Secret!, Ruthless People, Big Business and Hot Shots!. Jerry Zucker would also shift gears and make a serious-minded hit with Ghost.

Twenty years later, Airplane! still manages to put a smile on the face of many a viewer. The self-assured style of the humor, the energy it is delivered with, and the sheer volume of gags make it an all-time classic of film comedy. If its non-stop laughs that you want, then Airplane is your ticket.

Movie Release History

1980 - Airplane!
1982 - Airplane II: The Sequel

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Ted Striker Robert Hays
Elaine Dickinson Julie Hagerty
McCroskey Lloyd Bridges
Doctor Rumack Leslie Nielsen
Captain Oveur Peter Graves
Kramer Robert Stack
Roger Murdock Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Randy Lorna Patterson
Johnny Stephen Stucker

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