Airport ’77 (1977)

A group of art thieves hijack a plane by using knockout gas! The pilot is a progressive man who wants to marry his girlfriend, but she’s straight out of Ms. Magazine and is too career minded to commit! Familiar TV faces abound on this doomed flight including Brenda Vacarro, Darren McGavin and Gil Gerard! The plane comes equipped with gartguan-sized videodisc player! Even better, it also comes equipped with a lounge singer! And the whole thing crashes into the Bermuda Triangle! Truly, Airport ’77 is the most gloriously 70s of the four Airport movies! (Or any movie for that matter!)

By this time in the series, an actual airport has little to do with the any of the aerial antics involved. Quickly figuring out that the drama of an airport manager having a meal in the cafeteria with a customs inspector was far outweighed by sweaty pilots and crazed stewardesses reading guages and turning knobs frantically, the titular airport is only involved as a location for the plane to take off and land. And in the case of Airport ’77, since the Bermuda Triangle doesn’t have an airport, you don’t even get a proper white knuckle landing to finish the film off. Instead we’re treated to a bunch of Navy flotation devices popping causing the plane to sink a second time.

Despite being the third film in the series, Airport ’77 feels like the first one to actually be a proper disaster film. Airport and its lame mad bomber angle felt like an afterthought and while the midair collision in Airport 1975  which killed the crew is certainly a bit of a disaster, the movie felt more like a Lifetime movie with its focus on the plucky stewardess learning how to steer the plane before her boyfriend quite literally dropped in to save the day. Airport ’77 though put its passengers in charge of trying to survive while circumstances closed in around them, threatening to kill them either by sinking or by running out of oxygen.

Perhaps not surprisingly though given its pedigree, Airport ’77 also puts the audience through the usual case of cinema hypoxia. The story is a silly affair involving a rich man named Stevens with a large collection of valuable art flying it down on his brand new super deluxe posh 747 (it even has an office and bedrooms!) to Palm Beach where it will be put on public display for everyone’s enjoyment.

Also on board the plane is a group of people he invited to make the trip. They includes his estranged daughter (no good reason is given for this estrangement and the daughter just comes off as a sullen ingrate), his grandson, and other mopes who I could never figure out why they were aboard. There’s also a gang of art thieves and a single security guard on board. (He gets karate chopped to death, finally giving the film series a much needed murder.)

While the plane is put through its paces on a test flight at the beginning of the film by Captain Gallagher, no such vetting apparently occurred for any of the people working in and around the plane. At times the gang of art thieves pretending to be various members of the crew seemed to outnumber the real crew. One of the co-pilots is in on it as well as two guys posing as stewards. And at least one of them is a master of disguise, as he whips out his fake mustache and atrocious wig so that he can pass for a maintenance man.

If you weren’t laughing at his Junior Detective Disguise Kit, you’ll be wondering if there wasn’t a simpler way to steal a couple of paintings then hooking up a canister of what’s labeled CS-7 Gas to the air hoses, using that to knock out the passengers, taking over the plane, flying it to a deserted airstrip on an island where another plane is waiting to take you and the stolen paintings to South America.

You could plan all that, but couldn’t figure out how steal the paintings from the airport during loading? Wouldn’t it have been easier to pull the old switcheroo and load the plane with fakes? You know another reason simpler is usually better? Because simpler usually doesn’t put you in a position where you have to fly really low to avoid radar in a bunch of a fog so that you ram the plane into an oil rig.

Once the crash occurs, the thieves play no part in the film and that entire angle is promptly forgotten. Which is really too bad since then we’re just left with a group of standard issue annoying  passengers. Again, like its predecessors, the film is unable to provide anyone we care about. Even as the passengers get more screen time being hurt, trying to help each other, gawking in terror as water begins to fill the cabin or a dead body floats by a window, they’re either obnoxious (Lee Grant’s character pointlessly treats her husband like crap) or after they’re introduced prior to the crash, are rarely seen again (Gil Gerard’s character, Olivia de Havilland’s character).

Incredibly though, it’s the series sole regular that fares worst of all. George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni is back again, but why? He has about two or three brief scenes where he lamely explains he’s a liaison between his company and the military and babbles about how he knows the plane’s stress points. Except that later in the movie, Captain Gallagher convinces the Navy to let him dive with rescuers because he knows the stress points, too!

The movie really loses steam once Gallagher is rescued and the full resources of the Navy are deployed to float the plane to the surface. There isn’t anything compelling about watching a bunch of anonymous divers attaching balloons to the plane and waiting for it float up while the characters the movie has tried to feature stand around doing nothing.

Airport ’77 at least looks like a step up budget wise compared to Airport 1975 and its cockpit-bound bore with an impressive display of military hardware during the climatic rescue sequence. Still, these Airport movies with their dopey plots and undeveloped characters (most feel like glorified and ultimately distracting cameos) are really great disaster films only in the sense that it’s a great disaster that film icons like Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon and Jimmy Stewart felt compelled to be in them.

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