Air stewardess Nancy Pryor (Karen Black) briefly meets her airline executive boyfriend Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston) at the airport, but they don't leave on good terms when Alan makes it clear he's not sure about committing to the relationship. Nancy's flight, 409, has been delayed due to a wait for a young kidney patient (Linda Blair) needing to board the plane, as her kidney transplant is at the flight's destination. When she finally arrives, the 747 takes to the skies, but there is calamity ahead: when the flight is diverted to Salt Lake City, it is headed for a businessman with a heart condition (Dana Andrews) who is flying his personal jet on the same path...
Written by Don Ingalls as a follow-up to the all-star 1970 blockbuster Airport, this effort set the series on a course that would become something of a joke to moviegoers for years to come. The nominal star, Heston, was well into his cycle of movies that saw him trying to manage an increasingly out of control universe, but he hardly appears for the first half of the film, which means, of course, that this is a big budget Karen Black vehicle, and every bit as good as that sounds. Surrounding our plucky heroine are a cast of has-beens and never-quites, making the film resemble a wide screen TV movie.
That's not all that makes Airport 1975 look out of place on the silver screen, the soap opera plotting doesn't help, either. The human interest includes Myrna Loy as a sweet little old lady with a taste for bourbon and beer - this borderline alcoholism is played for laughs, as is the trio of tipsy businessmen's confusion. Then there's Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson as, er, Gloria Swanson in yet another comeback, here talking about herself non-stop. Helen Reddy is a nun who cruelly strums a song on the guitar for the ailing Blair; where's John Belushi when you need him? The list goes on.
The forced humour is barely distinguishable from the campy disaster movie conventions by this time. Contrast the little old ladies chuckling over a sex manual (really) with Andrews crashing his jet into the front of the 747 and killing two thirds of the crew, and you may have some trouble keeping a straight face when confronted with its mix of near-sadism, pseudo-knowing humour and heartstring-tugging. The melodrama, because of it's heavily emphasised sincerity, looks ridiculous, especially when Nancy has to take the controls due to the only surviving pilot being blind and delirious ("Thrust levers!").
The story could have fit into a half hour, for all its weight, so once the 747 is hit, there are protracted scenes of Black whining and doing her best against the odds, and Heston and engineer George Kennedy - whose wife (Susan Clark) and son are on the plane - gritting their teeth and working out how to bring the passengers back down to earth. The way they do this features a pretty good stunt, to be fair, with a stuntman hanging out of the back of a helicopter lowered towards the hole in the cockpit, but after all Nancy's been through, why couldn't she be like Doris Day and land the plane herself? Macho Heston steals her thunder. Silly, campy, an insult to the intelligence, Airport 1975 is a must for aficionados of big budget trash. Music by John Cacavas.