Millionaire businessman Philip Stevens (James Stewart) is planning on opening his sprawling mansion to the public so they can view his priceless art treasures. For the opening night, he has organised his company's latest aircraft, a luxury, customised Jumbo Jet to fly out with the treasures on it, along with the guests for the accompanying party. The pilot is Dan Gallagher (Jack Lemmon), who means to marry his girlfriend (Brenda Vaccaro), also an employee of Stevens', but what he doesn't know is that his co-pilot and the stewards on the airliner are thieves planning a heist of the artworks - and that their crime will put everyone on board in deadly peril...
Written by Michael Scheff and David Spector, this was the third in the successful-but-trashy Airport series, and saw the plane flying into another minor seventies obsession, the Bermuda Triangle, for a Poseidon Adventure-style crisis. Assembling a roster of stars who had seen better days and wannabes who would be better suited to television, the disaster movie formula is the same as ever: put your cast through absolute hell, kill a few off, and have the rest miraculously saved for your grand finale. Then sit back and watch the cash pour in. Not as unintentionally funny as the previous instalment, and therefore not quite as perversely entertaining, this one showed that disaster movies were growing past their prime by that point.
Nevertheless, the laughs are there. Even before the disaster strikes, we've seen one of the hijackers don a disguise featuring a wig that cunningly makes his hair look exactly the same. Then we're introduced to our victims, including Olivia De Havilland as the dear little old lady exhibiting inappropriate behaviour - she's a no-nonsense gambler here. Not to mention the blind pianist, who comes across as sort of a Peters and Lee without the Lee (and the hits) bringing Kathleen Quinlan to the verge of tears with his cheesy ballad. Christopher Lee appears as Dr Wallace, a sober scientist trying to save the world's hunger problems with, erm, plankton or something.
However, the real star of the show is Lee Grant as Mrs Wallace; fragile, hard-boozing, sarcastic and emotionally unstable, she acts the cast off the screen - overacts them off the screen, in fact. She makes Sue Ellen from Dallas look like Mother Teresa. Once the heist has gone horribly wrong and the plane has clipped an oil rig, sending it plunging into the depths of the ocean, she gets to go further over the top when faced with a watery grave. Her husband offers to help with releasing a dinghy containing a radio signal that will help their rescuers pinpoint where they are, but the hope of survival isn't good enough for Mrs Wallace, and she selfishly tries to talk him out of it. She may have a point, because once he mentions he's an experienced diver we can guess he's doomed. And it's Christopher Lee, anyway, he usually dies in his films.
There's an undeniable schadenfreude in watching disaster movies, or at least there is in the bad ones. The victims here are all filthy rich, so we're invited to take pleasure in their extreme hardship, as if they're being punished for their privileged lives. We may not feel sorry for the characters, but you might feel sorry for the actors: James Stewart, one of the greatest stars of all time, gets to stand at the sidelines and look worried for practically the whole film, and Jack Lemmon, another screen giant, spends most of his time drenched. Still, you can bet the financial compensation was more than adequate. George Kennedy, as in the other ones, is present in this Airport movie, but doesn't even get to go out to the scene of the crash to help out. The rescue is well staged, and if they did try to bring up a sunken Jumbo Jet from the sea bed I guess that's how they'd do it, but in this series, the worse they are the better, so Airport '77 isn't really bad enough. Music by John Cacavas.