The moviegoing public was ready when the movie “Airplane” hit theaters in 1980, hence a hilariously serious Leslie Nielsen starting a new catchphrase and comedy trend. This was right after a long run of “Airport” movie sequels that had already devolved the year prior to a plot about a Concorde attempting a crash landing somewhere in France. Regardless, once two “Airplane” movies were made from producers Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers by 1982, the serious airline disaster movie was mostly blighted, despite still continuing with every cliché.
With time, that’s changed somewhat, especially with Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” and a new pilot character with enough personal demons to destroy every previous convention. This isn’t to say that merely landing a plane in a movie won’t conjure guffaw-worthy thoughts of Robert Hays’ Ted Striker wiping away a waterfall of sweat off his forehead. You also can’t necessarily say that a comedy still couldn’t be done about landing a plane, despite real-life tragic incidents making it more challenging.
Today, though, any tragedy can happen and a parody will be depicted much sooner than we’d expect. We saw an example of that this year in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator” where his mock Muslim dictator makes references in jest about 9/11. But even if ribbing terrorists is more of a perpetual risk from extreme criticism, real-life stories of jets crashing are becoming fewer as time goes on.
And that might be surprising to many as some of our airlines continue to age badly without appropriate repairs or replacements. “Flight” is more about the subject of tarnished heroes than showing the machismo of safely landing a plane a la Sully Sullenberger style. It’s also the first movie about a crash landing to have the landing at the beginning of the movie rather than at the end as we’re used to seeing.
Such trope-busting ideas might set a new precedent for how movies could potentially satirize the genre in the future. Even Denzel Washington alluded to such things when he recently mentioned on “Late Show with David Letterman” that pilot Whip Whitaker can seemingly make a stiff drink and take drugs with one hand while piloting the plane to a slightly bumpy landing with the other. If we don’t see that in a comedy down the road, then all sense of satire is destroyed.
Of course, going that route expands satire to the realms of alcoholism and drug taking, subjects that were never alluded to in “Airplane.” Should Sasha Baron Cohen be the only one who can somehow satirize the most sensitive subjects, perhaps he’s the go-to guy in making the next airline disaster comedy. Having him play a pilot with a secret, prurient life in the, yes, cockpit would make for an interesting turn away from more outrageous takes on dictators, gay fashion presenters, or (eventually) Freddie Mercury.
In the meantime, we can easily brand the old “Airport” movies as self-parody, while older films such as 1954’s “The High and the Mighty” still hold up well as drama. It seems the further away in time the plane disaster genre gets from the parodies, the better they hold up as compelling films. For “Flight”, the most we may ever see to follow it is a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Denzel Washington himself.
Or perhaps the Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker production arm can come back to cinematic life with an “Airplane III: The High and Mighty Sequel.”