Celebrating Airplane!‘s 40th birthday with a Blu-ray review

Aug 17, 2020- Permalink

When I was a young boy, perhaps grade one or two, a teacher wrote on my report card that “Ian can sometimes be silly.” As someone who was doing comedy at a very young age, I saw it as a badge of honour. Sure, Monty Python could do a sketch about philosophers playing soccer, but they could also do the Norwegian fish dance. Silly can be good. No, silly can sometimes be the exact thing you need.

Airplane!, which is currently celebrating its 40th birthday, is a very silly movie. Exceedingly silly. I’m not putting it in the same temple of comedy as the Pythons, but damn it, it was a Norwegian fish dance.

If you’re in the US, or willing to go through an importer, Paramount is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Airplane!’s release with a new version on their limited edition Paramount Presents label. That release has a brand new 1080p transfer from a 4K remaster that was supervised by writer/directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker. Paramount is also promoting the previous Blu-ray release and I was able to get a copy from them to take a look at.

If you haven’t had a chance to see Airplane! in the past four decades, the plot, such as it is, is a very thin construct upon which a million jokes and sight gags have been affixed. Loosely based on the movie Zero Hour! written by Arthur Hailey (which in turn was based on Hailey’s teleplay Flight Into Danger on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), it follows former fighter pilot Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) traveling on a commercial flight. Because of an incident that happened in “the war”, Stryker has a fear of flying and a drinking problem. His girlfriend, Elaine (Julie Hagerty), has just broken up with him, but is also a flight attendant on the flight he’s on. When the crew becomes incapacitated, Ted and Elaine might be the only hope the passengers have of surviving.

One of the great bits of casting is the inclusion of dramatic actors like Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen doing comedy for the first time. Seeing dramatic actors spoofing the disaster genre and delivering lines like “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley” gave the edge that had audiences falling out of their seats. Nielsen was able to parlay his appearance into a new career direction that capitalized on his deadpan comedy delivery and comedic courage to be up for anything.

Airplane! is –- and this is a very scientific term -– a hoot. It takes genre tropes and sacred cows and turns them into hamburgers with a side of curly fries. When it was added to the United States’ National Film Registry, the Library of Congress said that it, “introduced a much-needed deflating assessment of the tendency of theatrical film producers to push successful formulaic movie conventions beyond the point of logic”. That’s just librarian-speak for “It’s very silly.”

The Blu-ray I was sent was originally released in 2011. The 1080 AVC-encoded transfer was in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, differing slightly from the 1.85:1 ratio of the theatrical release. It’s a pretty clean transfer, not falling victim to a lot of digital noise reduction and smoothing, and preserving the appearance of the film grain. Good skin textures and detail are apparent throughout, whether it be textiles or scenery objects. The colour palette is subdued and the black levels are good.

On the audio side, you’re given the choice of an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack or French, Portuguese or Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono tracks. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. The sound engineers have done a good job of moving the original soundtrack into the 5.1 format, moving sound effects and environmental elements into the surround soundscape. The music is dynamic and the joke-filled dialogue is clear, centred, and well-prioritized.

On the extras side, the 2011 version I reviewed had audio commentary from producer Jon Davison, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry and David Zucker. There’s a “Long Haul Version” that prompts viewers during the film to see deleted scenes and interviews, a pop-up trivia track, and a theatrical trailer.

Combine a film on the AFI’s Top 100 Comedies list with good video and audio presentations and fun extras, and you get a great way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Airplane! Collectors and Airplane! Fanatics will probably want to get their hands on the numbered Paramount Presents edition. Either way, you’ll have fun.