With its all star cast of Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Karen Black’s crazy eyes and the plane’s altimeter, Airport 1975 is easily five years better than 1970’s Airport!
Wisely tripling the fatalities (from one to three), ramping up the drama among the passengers (Will Linda Blair’s Janice survive the trip to get her kidney transplant? Will Myrna Loy’s Mrs. Devaney create an even worse crisis following the mid air collision that kills the crew by drinking the airplane’s in flight adult beverage selection completely dry? Will the singing nun further traumatize the already shellshocked stewardesses by doing an acoustic version of “Seasons in the Sun?”), casting Erik Estrada (CHiPS‘s Ponch) as a cringe-inducing horny Latin stereotype and being a half hour shorter than Airport‘s transatlantic length 137 minutes, Airport 1975 is perfectly crafted to improbably make the overheated and silly original feel like a classic of nuance and sophistication.
Airport 1975 attempts to be more of a thriller than melodrama with the focus of the entire film being on the the 747 attempting to land safely without a crew on board. Gone is the entire element of what is happening at an airport other than nonstop shots of air traffic control telling Karen Black’s Chief Stewardess Nancy to turn the plane this way or that, while she periodically wails that she can’t do it. It may not have been very exciting, but it must have been damn cheap (and more importantly, profitable) for Universal to make a movie consisting entirely of people just talking on two different sets, in between exterior shots of a plane cruising around in the mountains.
A cross country flight to Los Angeles goes terribly awry when the pilot of a small plane has a heart attack and crashes smack dab into the cockpit of the 747, wiping out the pilots. Somehow this doesn’t really affect the plane beyond necessitating the passengers to cover up with blankets due to the nice breeze blowing through the gaping hole in the front of the plane. (There is later mention of fuel leaking from the wing, a crack appearing in the wing, the number 3 engine acting wonky, questions about the landing gear, and a last second issue with the brakes, but other then the wing taking out a chintzy looking shed on landing, nothing comes of any of those defects.)
Charlton Heston plays Captain Murdock, the best damn 747 pilot in the galaxy. He also happens to be Stewardess Nancy’s boyfriend! And they just had a fight before she got on the ill-fated plane! And George Kennedy’s Joe Petroni is back from Airport! And he’s now an exec at Columbia Airlines, the carrier of the stricken plane! And he gets old friend Murdock to fly with him to Salt Lake City to set up the riskiest rescue mission ever conceived for a movie that doesn’t want to spend a dime on respectable special effects – the midair transfer of a pilot into the damaged plane! Oh yeah, and this time it’s personal for Joe because his wife and kid are onboard the plane, too! Crud, how was it that the President, the Pope and Queen of England didn’t also happen to be on that dang plane?
Heston proves again why he was the greatest actor of the era, rocking a yellow turtle neck and safari jacket (it served him well during the apocalypse in The Omega Man so it ought to be able to handle a run of the mill air disaster) with the sort of authority that only comes with that “I’m freaking awesome regardless of what sort of trash I’m cashing a paycheck for this month” attitude.
To get a sense of what a high altitude flight of fail Airport 1975 is, one need only to look at how it used Heston for much of the movie to simply bark out flying instructions to his girlfriend over the radio. This guy fought a planet full of apes, vampires, and the entire Egyptian military and the most you have him do for the first 85 minutes is uttering lines like “Climb baby. Climb.” as his girlfriend tries not crash the plane into a mountain. (But maybe Universal was simply rationing out Heston since he was also shooting the studio’s other big disaster film of 1974, Earthquake, at the time. I mean, really, how much ridiculous dialogue spit out through gritted teeth could the public be expected to handle at one time?)
Again, the Airport series is hobbled by its single engine ambitions with a script that doesn’t deviant from a one sentence plot summary. Even what passes for the big suspense moment (the mid-air transfer of a pilot to the plane) is telegraphed badly as Heston is not the first guy to attempt it, meaning the first guy is obviously going to die doing it so that Heston can step in at the last minute to handle the plane’s landing.
The increased emphasis on the passengers this time (necessitated by the elimination of any on the ground story) is completely mishandled, reminding one of the early parts of a Love Boat episode where various recognizable entertainers appear to establish their one note character prior to boarding, but not actually following through with any story devoted to them. Nothing happens with any of the passengers – they exist solely as extended reaction shots. It gives the film an obvious padded feeling as you keep expecting the passengers to matter to the story, but they don’t.
As it is, the film belongs to the many deranged and laughable facial expressions of Karen Black. Feelings of confusion, fear, sadness, and abject insanity are on display as she flips switches, reads gauges and turns the steering wheel a little to the left and then a little to the right. Sometimes when things got super dramatic, she would even have to nose the plane up a bit! I feel like I wouldn’t have been so disappointed in the movie if Universal had been honest and just titled the whole bizarre affair Karen Black Flight Simulator 1975 instead.
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