Rare Exports: Airplane!

For November, we’re going to look at American “Parody” Movies, starting with 1980’s Airplane.

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Parody is a difficult thing to pull off well. At its best, parody comes from a place of knowledge, knowing enough about its subject matter to say something funny and insightful. When parody doesn’t work, it feels like a lazy crutch, “Hey we know about this popular thing too! Look at us!” But we’ll get to that as this month goes on.

1980’s Airplane! is a weird movie, even today. Taking the popular-at-the-time disaster movie genre and throwing in a large amount of bizarre humor and recurring wordplay, Airplane! is simultaneously absurd and understated. Weird stuff happens so often and so fast, but the character never call attention to how weird it is. That’s just how the universe of Airplane! works, and the film demonstrates a really refreshing lack of self-awareness about how bizarre things are. The straight-faced but completely insane humor of the film holds up pretty well, and despite being one of the first parody films in our lexicon, Airplane! is still one of the best.

Here’s something weird I learned while reading the Airplane! Wikipedia page: the story is almost an exact copy of 1957’s Zero Hour!. Both films follow attempts to save a passenger airplane with sickened pilots, and both play out in the same way with almost identical characters. Even weirder, directors David and Jeff Zucker gave their sudo-remake a cast of actors known for their dramatic work, with little experience in the kind of absurd humor the film hinges on. Both bold choices pay big dividends: everyone seems just a little awkward delivering their lines in such a serious manner, which just makes it more funny and weird. And giving the film such a dramatic premise makes the weird non sequiturs and dark humor more effective. There’s a surprising amount of craft and foresight behind Airplane!, even if the jokes are easy and pretty stupid.

Actually, let’s talk about that for a second. Humor is a really subjective thing, and very much a product of its time. The cheap wordplay and surreal humor of Airplane! seems like a direct response to the dry disaster-movie genre that was prevalent when it was released over thirty years ago, but how does it hold up now? Surprisingly well actually, Airplane! is still really funny, thanks to clever writing and fun characters. Jokes come really fast and largely out of nowhere, and everything feels like a surreal cartoon. Weirdly enough, the film is probably at its least funny when it’s directly parodying other movies, with jokes about Star Wars and Jaws seeming forced and mostly falling flat. When its doing its weird, out-there thing, Airplane! is still really funny.

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Even thirty years later, with countless imitators between, Airplane! still feels pretty unique. The overall lack of self-awareness, coupled with the completely absurd humor, give the movie a really unique vibe, which is only bolstered by a terrifically deadpan cast. As we delve further into the American Parody genre as the month goes on, lets all remember how Airplane! got it right.

Up Next: Scary Movie is still pretty good, but foreshadows how everything is going to go south.

Words by Tom Bunting. Photos by the Internet.

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