#3 in my Ranking of the Airport Franchise.
I’m approaching this tiny little franchise weird, because the third film was the first that I saw. I don’t think it’ll matter since the movies doesn’t share much in terms of character, plot, or an overarching story. They seem to be individual disaster movies centered around airplanes. Anyway, this one is not good.
Disaster movies, especially the star-studded affairs like The Towering Inferno, are curious beasts. They exist somewhere between genres. On the one hand is the procedural where professional people do professional things in order to fix a problem. These tend to have little to nothing in regards to character arcs, instead focusing on the more technical side of things. On the other hand, you have the dozen or so little stories that populate the films, mostly only recognizable because they use movie stars that function as a shorthand for the audience. These are about very small character beats that need to get established, changed, and resolved very quickly because each story is competing with another eleven as well as the disaster overall.
Ensemble movies are hard, if I haven’t said it before. You have a bunch of characters swirling around something (usually plot related, but not always, see Babel) where each character needs to have their moments, each of those needs to relate to the others as well as the central conflict, and everything needs to be resolved by the end. That’s generally what storytelling does in general, but it needs to be done in less amount of time per story and in conjunction with (not competition with) the other small stories to make a cohesive whole. That is not an easy thing to do. Most ensemble movies fail at it, instead having each little character bit done in almost complete isolation from the others.
Airport ’77 is one of those instances. Jimmy Stewart is filling an airplane with art for a museum he’s going to open and the plan also has a bunch of passengers. There’s a plot to steal the plane and the artwork that results in the plane flying into the Bermuda Triangle (because it was trendy at the time), flying so low that it almost hits an oil rig, before landing on the ocean where it sinks to the shallow bottom with the passengers trapped inside. They only have a limited amount of time before the fuselage gives way and everyone dies.
That’s ridiculous. It requires a series of unbelievable things to occur that ends up making the movie feel like a satire of the genre rather than a straight take. The large cast includes Jack Lemmon, Olivia de Havilland, Christopher Lee, Joseph Cotton, and others. Lemmon’s the professional pilot who takes charge after he’s knocked before the hijacking and awoken by the crash. Lee is going through marital troubles with a cheating wife, though he doesn’t know it. Havilland is an old lady who sees an old flame, Joseph Cotton. There are also young lovers, Jimmy Stewart’s daughter and grandchild, and others.
The movie doesn’t work because all of these stories clash and have little to nothing to do with the plane crashing. It’s always weird to watch a disaster movie where those who are actually doing things to improve the situation get pushed to the side in favor of little stories that aren’t affecting the overall plot. You could cut most of these little stories and miss nothing.
I simply don’t get past the mix of genres, the overriding ridiculousness of the events and the premise itself, or the bevy of little stories that don’t matter. Airport ’77 is a dreary experience of famous actors taking paychecks while nonsense plays out around them. Maybe it should have been played as a comedy.