Airplane! is one of the best comedies ever made. It helped to pioneer the spoof genre (although Mel Brooks got there first) even though its humor goes far beyond parody. It’s silly, it’s bizarre, it’s absurd, and it never falls in love with its own comedy. There’s nothing smarmy or self-satisfied as much as there’s a wonderful freedom to try everything. The miraculous thing about Airplane! is that almost every joke works. But should you upgrade to the new Blu-ray or will the DVD suffice?
Technically, Airplane! is based on Airport ’75 and Zero Hour, but you never need to see those movies. The “serious” plot of Airplane! is about Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a guilt-ridden former air force pilot who wants to win back his stewardess girlfriend (Julie Hagerty). He buys a ticket on her flight so he can keep talking to her, but then he has to step up and fly the plane half of the passengers and everyone in the cockpit gets deathly ill from eating bad fish. The story isn’t important because Airplane! isn’t about spoofing particular jokes or even characters. What’s important is taking the silly melodrama and using its deadly serious tone to build a new structure of jokes. There’s only one character in Airplane! who doesn’t behave like they’re in a dead-serious drama and that’s Johnny (Stephen Stucker). In theory, a character like Johnny shouldn’t work in this movie. His humor is completely out of sync with the rest of the film, and no one comments on his outlandish behavior. But Johnny is one of the funniest things in movie.
And that’s the beauty of Airplane!. It doesn’t try to be just one thing. Writers and directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker went for broke. There’s wordplay (“What’s our clearance Clarence?”), goofball humor (Ted’s drinking problem), spoofs of time-tested movies like Saturday Night Fever and From Here to Eternity, gross-out gags, bizarre comedy (“You ever hang around the gymnasium?”), the deadpan (Leslie Nielsen and Robert Stack’s unforgettable performances), a mess of running gags, and even a reference to a forgotten coffee commercial (“Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home…”) becomes a joke that still works today (“Jim never vomits when he’s at home…”). The movie is endlessly quotable and even though I’ve seen the movie countless times, it’s still funny. I know every set-up and every punch-line and the film always feels fresh.
Every spoof sits in the shadow of Airplane! but so do most comedy sub-genres. It’s a master class in blending comic styles while maintaining a cohesive and confident tone. It’s a marvel of writing, editing, acting, and directing, and it’s a must-own movie.
So the question isn’t “Should I own Airplane!?” but rather “Is it worth the upgrade from DVD?” On a technical level, that’s a more difficult question to answer. The Blu-ray presents a transfer that’s almost too good. For comparison, the image above is from the Blu-ray and the image at the top of the review and at the bottom are from the DVD. The colors on the Blu-ray are bright and vivid, and the movie looks better now than when it was released in 1980. However, that low-res quality helped to cover up the wires during Ted’s impossible dancing moves, and it’s slightly distracting to see the foundation of the actor’s make-up. It’s undoubtedly the cleanest transfer of the film thus far, but it’s somewhat to the film’s detriment. The audio is a more clear-cut case. There’s the occasional blemish when it comes to sound-effects but background noises are well done, there’s a nice use of separation (particularly in the red-zone, white-zone scene), and the dialogue always comes through crisp and clear.
The only real short-coming on this package are the special features. Everything from the DVD has been ported over and nothing new has been added so if you’re looking for some fresh extras, you won’t find them here. When you take account of the slightly over-done visuals, solid-but-not-mindblowing audio, and the lack of new special features, it’s tough to recommend an upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray unless you’re a die-hard fan. Additionally, if you’ve never owned the movie, you can probably find the DVD version for dirt cheap. Whether you choose to own the DVD or the Blu-ray, what’s important is that you have Airplane! in your collection even if you like movies about gladiators.