Cab driver Ted Striker (Robert Hays) used to be a pilot in the war, but tragedy struck and he has never been the same man since, not even able to board a plane anymore. Tonight his girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) has decided to break off her relationship with him, and leaves for the airport to catch the flight to Chicago that she is a stewardess on. Ted follows her just in time, and pleads with her not to abandon him, but it's too late, she's made up her mind. Making up his mind never to give up, and unbeknownst to Elaine, Ted confronts his fears and gets on the plane as a passenger. However, it soon becomes clear that the plane is flying into danger...
Remember the first time you saw Airplane? Presuming you have seen Airplane. Wasn't it one of the funniest things you'd ever watched? Written by the directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, it continued the line of bad taste, anything goes humour that their previous film, The Kentucky Fried Movie, had set up, only this time with a proper plotline borrowed from a nineteen-fifties disaster movie called Zero Hour. Nevertheless, the feeling of watching a series of sketches is never far away, all of them hit or miss but crucially with more hits than misses. Daft jokes abound, not only making fun of the old clichés, but sending up whatever they could pack in to ninety minutes.
By the late seventies the disaster movie genre was lapsing into unintentional self-parody and thus was a wide, easy target for the Kentucky Fried Movie team. The passengers hit all the marks for the stereotypes: the nice little old lady (who here commits suicide through boredom at Ted's war stories), the little girl in need of a heart transplant (the heart is seen bouncing around a doctor's desk at the start), the nun (and the Hare Krishnas), the token black passengers (who only speak in "jive") and many other recognisables. The hero naturally has a mountain of self doubt to conquer, the heroine is a decent girl who loves him really, and the crew of the plane are all professionals with names designed to cause confusion - "Roger," "Huh?" "Over," "What?", and so on.
The disaster is not a light aircraft hitting the plane, a bomb on board or a crash into the sea, but the problem of the fish that was served for dinner. If you ate the steak, you'll be fine, but those who had the fish will contract dire food poisoning, and that includes the flight crew. A doctor (Leslie Nielsen) is found, and he recommends the plane be landed at the nearest airport, but as the unconscious pilots have been surreptiously dragged down the aisle in full view of the passengers, who can fly it now? The only candidate is of course Ted, but is he up to it? Down on the ground, chief controller McCrosky (Lloyd Bridges) realises he picked the wrong week to stop smoking/drinking/glue sniffing and calls in Ted's old commander, Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) to talk him down.
The jokes are relentless, and wear you down - everyone should find something to laugh at here. Whereas in the later spoofs that Airplane inspired the cast would be deliberately and obviously playing for those laughs the actors here get the right idea immediately and are deadly serious throughout. Nielsen in particular was a revelation in a spoof of the roles he had essayed in countless television movies, and the increasingly wild Bridges and square-jawed Stack complemented each other perfectly. Where the parodies that came after relied on simply recognising the references they were making, this film takes care to make certain the humour works in its own right, whether you've ever seen an Airport movie or not.
The secret of its success is that the film can be rewatched in the comfortable knowledge that you'll find a joke you hadn't noticed or caught the previous time, and more essentially, it's endlessly quotable: the punchlines to "The hospital! What is it?" and "Surely you can't be serious!" have entered the vernacular. From its surreal sight gags (the inflatable autopilot, the terrible back projection, Bridges adopting the pose of a photograph behind his desk) to its inspired quips ("No, I've been nervous lots of times," "The tower! The tower! Rapunzel! Rapunzel!"), this irreverent gem was a deserved sensation, for better or worse, considering what it influenced. Listen for the terrific music by Elmer Bernstein, which keeps a straight face as much as the actors do.