In 1969, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider lured the hippies and fellow travelers into America’s increasingly empty movie theaters with its rangy story of drugs, sex and the search for freedom on the road. It grossed millions and shook up mainstream Hollywood. In 1970, old Hollywood fought back with a high-profile, all-star, based-on-a-glossy-best seller disaster flick that grossed $100 million and became Universal’s all-time highest grossing film: Airport.
Watching Universal’s remastered 100th Anniversary Blu-ray, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit—and why it would so quickly become a joke. (Also, how fleeting old Hollywood’s victory was. As the studio prepped Airport’s first sequel, Steven Spielberg was dreaming of a giant shark that would shred Airport’s box office records.)
What makes it worth watching? It celebrates that old Hollywood dictum that you should be able to see the budget up on the screen; here, spare-no-expense producer Ross Hunter’s often crass touch is a plus. Airport doesn’t have that baleful, late 1960’s Universal visual look, a flatly-lit studio style endemic to their TV productions—a look that often showed up in their feature films. And the action sequences, when not overwhelmed by fussy split-screen interruptions, are taut and exciting.
Now forgotten, author Arthur Hailey became wildly successful writing long, juicy novels which took readers behind the scenes of some big institution. He would build up a lot of interesting factual detail about the inner workings of a big-city hotel or major metropolitan airport, on which he would then hang a plot laced with sex, crime and struggles for power.
Here the heroes are played by a couple of established stars on their way down, Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. They play middle-age men with wife trouble; of course, the solution is hooking up with someone more supportive, younger . . . fresher. Jean Seberg and Jacqueline Bisset bring a lot to these thankless roles; Seberg is wearily professional as Lancaster’s assistant, and Bisset is quick and authoritative under pressure as—you guessed it—a stewardess. And Martin is particularly good, especially when he’s gallantly offering to pay for his knocked-up gal-pal’s Swedish abortion.
What hurts the film is less the deeply square plotting than the way in which the filmmakers lose the human stories in the mechanics of making the disaster happen. And once the disaster happens—in this case, a bomb goes off on a Boeing 707—who even remembers the individual stories? How is Dino going to land the damn plane?
Airport was so successful that it spawned a series of increasingly ridiculous sequels featuring even less carefully drawn characters. (These were all helpfully titled by year, e.g., Airport ’75, Airport ’77.) But Airport also fathered an entire genre. Exploding planes were followed by city-destroying earthquakes, treacherous amusement park rides, flaming skyscrapers and . . . killer bees. In less than 10 years, the genre had devoured itself, with the blockbuster comedy Airplane! delivering the coup de grace.
The extras on the disc are the same as the extras on The Sting special edition Blu-ray—a couple of featurettes on the Universal lot and the studio in the 1970s—though there is a theatrical trailer that shows just how important the literary tie-in was.