It is the near future and space travel for the public is now possible, to the extent that they can, if they so desire, live on the Moon in a base there. There is a space shuttle due to take off for that destination tonight, and ex-stewardess, now computer operator Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) is part of the crew, pleased that she will be serving alongside her new fiancé Simon Kurtz (Chad Everett), but unable to get the memory of her old boyfriend out of her mind. Funnily enough he is out of his mind, as former pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) has been confined to a mental institution...
But don't worry, he won't be there for long, just long enough to get a few gags in. It's safe to say that the original Airplane! was something of a phenomenon in comedy terms, an unashamedly ridiculous item of hilarity that made audiences laugh the world over. For this sequel, however, the reaction was not quite as welcoming, for in spite of featuring many of the same cast, it did not feature the creative team of Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams whose humorous stylings had made the previous film such a success, both artistically and financially. It's the latter that made this follow-up an inevitability.
But what it did not do was make those box office tills ring quite as loudly, as while Airplane II did mild business, it was nowhere near the world beater that had come before. The problem that most audiences had with this was not that it wasn't the original, it's that it tried to be that original too faithfully, with jokes familiar from the first incarnation lifted straight out and plonked in with little regard to the fact that we'd heard this one already. The addition of a space plot did not raise this much above a slavish copy, and the fact that the gags were being told to us by many of the same people did not help matters.
It's as if writer and director Ken Finkleman had been instructed to stick to the same formula as closely as possible, and it's this playing it safe that derailed the project. If there's one thing that Airplane! did not do, it was play it safe, and in spite of some humour that would not have played with family audiences there was the sense of been there, done that about this whole thing. With the Zuckers and Abrahams washing their hands of the production (they decided to make Top Secret! instead) it was clear that most of the laughs in this were stemming from their hard work. But was it really all that bad? Surely with this cast willing to send themselves up it was not a dead loss?
And in truth, there are some amusing bits and pieces in Airplane II, even if you cannot get the original out of your thoughts when everyone concerned is so determined to have you remember what you liked about it. The veterans do the same performances as they did last time, with the addition of the likes of Raymond Burr as a judge (not really going for the giggles here) and William Shatner as the head of the moonbase (hamming it up to the hilt) for star spotters hoping to see those fixtures of series television doing something out of character for the sake of comedy. There's a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey when the shuttle's computer malfunctions and again, the newly-escaped Striker has to take the controls and save the day. But there's a lack of the comic energy that distinguished its predecessor, so while you will chortle at some decent punchlines, it doesn't half feel jaded. Music by Elmer Bernstein, with the theme from Battlestar Galactica for some reason.