Airport ★★

Absolute swill from the writer-director of, uh, Miracle on 34th Street and The Country Girl became a mass cultural phenomenon and franchise throughout the '70s, which is completely mysterious since it feels like an outmoded, quaint and campy sort of entertainment you can't picture audiences falling for in that period, not least because there was a Hollywood film almost exactly like it just seven years earlier -- The V.I.P.s, with the same lurid romances intertwining with a disastrous evening at an airport stymied by bad weather, right down to the kooky old lady in both films winning an Oscar. Largely because it features so many good actors humiliating themselves but perhaps even more because Seaton has one powerhouse of a tense thriller sequence up his sleeve (involving a mentally ill passenger with a bomb, ironically the only character in the film who seems like a human), it gave rise, of course, to the brain-atrophying likes of The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and the TV shows Hotel and The Love Boat, but taken on its own its broad, soapy, sub-telefilm melodrama almost begs to be mocked (which it would be, the creation of another phenomenon). Like the most cringe-inducing guilty pleasure TV, it's spectacularly stupid and terrible for your health but it's inevitably quite entertaining in its fashion, even if neither the long buildup nor the misplaced nihilism of the finale really go all the way like you hope. But its pile of Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, is hard to comprehend -- going back to the earlier point about how it seems like bottom-drawer entertainment of a different time (think Grand Hotel, which is not nearly as dumb, or the Fox Titanic, which is), this was up against Five Easy Pieces at the 43rd Academy Awards, which feels like a typo. How could those two films be from the same universe, much less the same year?

It's kind of amazing I hadn't seen this before. My mom absolutely loves disaster movies, and she and I share a weird fixation on learning about airplane-related catastrophes (we both love to fly, strangely), while I have an attachment to movies that feature people extremely involved in their work and show us how they do it, one reason I'm so much less hard on The Greatest Show on Earth than most people. But watching this I never buy Burt Lancaster as a master of juggling in charge of multiple problems in his facility. I don't think he does either. I was much more familiar, at any rate, with Airplane! -- and though I haven't seen that since I was a teenager, it's a testament to its genius that one isn't required to have seen the Airport movies to find it hilarious, while having seen Airplane! completely demolishes Airport and in fact makes it seem thin and powerless.

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