Last week: the lovably pathetic spectacle that was Airport 1975. This week: Airport ‘77. “Bigger and more exciting than Airport 1975!” boasted the trailer. And for once, the publicity was right. That doesn’t mean the film is good, as such. But it does represent an interesting exception to the law of diminishing returns when it comes to franchises. Three movies in, and we encounter as close to a high point as the franchise is going to get.
The premise is, unsurprisingly, ludicrous, but it is ludicrous in an engaging fashion, and in its naivete is the sort of thing that might have appealed to the Surrealists. Multi-millionaire Jimmy Stewart is Giving Back To Society by putting his priceless art collection on public display… in his private and apparently rather inaccessible home. But hey, it’s the thought that counts. Anyway, he’s flying his collection and an assortment of guests to the opening on his private 747, a plane redesigned to serve as a flying hotel/conference hall. What this means is that the passenger compartment looks like a cocktail lounge, complete with grand piano (which was presumably installed there by the same method ships are placed in bottles). This is a useful (if ridiculous) conceit, because it means that rather than have a bunch of anonymous passengers with a few singled out for attention, now every passenger is an actual character, no matter how thinly sketched in.
On board, then, are pilot Jack Lemmon, love-interest and chief flight attendant Brenda Vaccaro, Darren McGavin as the guy what knows all about the plane, Christopher Lee as a businessman out to save the world from starvation, Lee Grant as his alcoholic, unspeakably shrewish wife, Olivia De Havilland as an art patron, Joseph Cotten as her old flame, and so on. The co-pilot is Robert Foxworth, and he’s clean-shaven, which is a bad sign. With a beard, as in Prophecy (1979), he can be the good guy, but without, he’s in full weasel mode, as in Damien: Omen II (1978). Turns out he’s one of three art hijackers. Knockout gas is pumped into the plane, and everyone but the villains (who don gas masks) passes out. Foxworth takes the plane below radar level so no one will know where they are, and enters the Bermuda Triangle. Now, the Triangle has nothing whatsoever to do with what happens next, and is mentioned only to name-check one of the sillier obsessions of the 70s.
Flying at low altitude, Foxworth clips an oil rig, which is apparently completely unmanned, since it never reports any damage, which would certainly make the search for the down plane a lot easier. Anyway, splash goes the 747. It then sinks to the bottom. Now Jack Lemmon has to figure out how to save everyone before the air runs out or the hull caves in. That’s right: Airport ’77 manages to combine elements of airplane, ship and submarine jeopardy flicks. Neat trick.
The movie is every bit as silly as I’ve made it sound, and then some. But for all the cheese, it does manage to generate a surprising level of suspense. You might not believe in what you’re watching, and you might be laughing much of the time, but there’s still something pretty potent about the threat of death by suffocation, drowning, or both. And unlike Airport 1975, the character are all recognizably characters here, rather than simply fading names. I won’t say they’re memorable characters. I won’t even say they’re convincing ones. Not even close. But they are still characters, and remain such from start to finish.
In this respect, the film is closest to the first in the series, with the difference that the disaster is, again, central to the film, making it a fun, pacy couple of hours.
And don’t worry, Patroni fans: George Kennedy is back, if only to offer Jimmy Steward moral support. His role here is pretty small, but he’d more than make up for that in the atrocity that came next.