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Movies on a Plane

Do you like them on a boat? Do you like them with a goat? Do you like them on a train? Do you like them on a plane?

No, Sam I Am is not inquiring about your appetite for green eggs and ham. He is, of course, referring to snakes. But we have seen a lot of movies about a lot of things on a lot of planes, long before there were snakes on them. Here is what Roger Ebert has had to say about some of them:

"Air Force One" (1997) aka "Action-Hero President on a Plane"

You are familiar with the movie's premise because of all the commercials and coming attractions trailers and magazine covers and talk show appearances. You know that Gary Oldman plays the leader of a gang of terrorists who gain control of Air Force One as it's flying back home from Moscow. You know it's up to Ford, as President James Marshall, Vietnam combat hero, to battle the terrorists. You know his wife and children are among the hostages--and that he has just vowed that America will never negotiate with terrorists....

But mostly the movie is stapled together out of ingredients from many, many other films about presidents, terrorists, hijackings, hostages, airplanes, politics and cat-and-mouse chases. It is inevitable, for example, that the terrorists will separate and go poking around on their own, so that they can be picked off one at a time. It is inevitable that there will be Washington press conferences, so that bones of information can be thrown to the seething press. It is inevitable that there will be personality flare-ups among the lesser politicians, and dire comments by their advisers ("The element of surprise is a formidable weapon").

"Airport" (1970) aka "Van Heflin on a Plane"

Heflin, as the guy with the bomb in his briefcase, is perhaps the only person in the cast to realize how metaphysically absurd "Airport" basically is. The airplane already has a priest, two nuns, three doctors, a stowaway, a customs officer's niece, a pregnant stewardess, two black GIs, a loudmouthed kid, a henpecked husband, and Dean Martin aboard, right? So obviously the bomber has to be typecast, too.

Heflin sweats, shakes, peers around nervously, clutches his briefcase to his chest, refuses to talk to anybody, and swallows a lot. The customs officer sees him going on the plane and notices "something in his eyes." Also in his ears, nose, and throat. What Heflin does is undermine the structure of the whole movie with a sort of subversive overacting. Once the bomber becomes ridiculous, the movie does, too. That's good, because it never had a chance at being anything else.

"Airport 1975" (1974) aka "A Plane on a Plane"

The story is familiar to anyone. A private plane crashes into the flight deck of a 747, killing or disabling its crew. A stewardess pilots the plane by following radioed instructions, and then a rescue pilot (Charlton Heston, inevitably) is lowered from an Air Force helicopter into the gaping hole in the plane. Meanwhile, a young kidney patient grows weaker, a drunk accosts the pilot, and Gloria Swanson dictates the finishing touches on her autobiography ("I never did want the damn thing published while I was alive, anyway").

"Airplane!" (1980) aka "Gladiator Movies on a Plane"

“Airplane!” has a couple of sources for its inspiration. One of them is obviously “Airport” (1970) and all of its sequels and rip-offs. The other might not come immediately to mind unless you're a fan of the late show. It's “Zero Hour” (1957), which starred the quintessential 1950s B-movie cast of Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and Sterling Hayden. "Airplane!" comes from the same studio (Paramount) and therefore is able to cheerfully borrow the same plot (airliner is imperiled after the crew and most of the passengers are stricken with food poisoning). The “Zero Hour” crisis situation (how to get the airplane down) was also borrowed for the terrible “Airport 1975,” in which Karen Black played a stewardess who tried to follow instructions radioed from the ground.

"Die Hard 2: Die Harder" (1990) aka "Die Hard on a Plane"

"Die Hard 2," subtitled "Die Harder," enters Bruce Willis in a decathlon of violence, and he places first in every event, including wrestling for guns, jumping onto conveyor belts, being ejected from cockpits, leaping onto the wings of moving airplanes and fighting with the authorities....

"Die Hard 2" is as unlikely as the Bond pictures, and as much fun. And during a summer when violence and mayhem are allowed to substitute for imagination and good writing, this is an especially well-crafted picture. It tells a story we can identify with, it has a lot of interesting supporting characters, it handles the action sequences with calm precision, and it has a couple of scenes that are worth writing home about.

One of those is a plane crash. Not everybody's favorite image, I'll grant you. (This is a feature that will be severely edited before it becomes an in-flight movie.) Watching the plane burst into flames on a runway, I knew intellectually that I was watching special effects, probably a fairly large and detailed model photographed in slow motion.

But no matter. The crash was scarily convincing.

"Con Air" (1997) aka "Every Creek and Freak in the Universe on a Plane"

Midway in "Con Air," the Nicolas Cage character observes: "Somehow they managed to get every creep and freak in the universe on this one plane." That's the same thought I was having. The plane -- a hijacked flight of dangerous convicts -- has so many criminal superstars on it, it's like a weirdo version of those comic books where the superheroes hold a summit.

"United 93" (2006) aka "Terrorists on a Plane"

The director, Paul Greengrass, makes a deliberate effort to stay away from recognizable actors, and there is no attempt to portray the passengers or terrorists as people with histories. In most movies about doomed voyages, we meet a few key characters we'll be following: The newlyweds, the granny, the businessman, the man with a secret. Here there's none of that. What we know about the passengers on United 93 is exactly what we would know if we had been on the plane and sitting across from them: nothing, except for a few details of personal appearance.

Scenes on board the plane alternate with scenes inside the National Air Traffic Control Center, airport towers, regional air traffic stations, and a military command room. Here, too, there are no back stories. Just technicians living in the moment. Many of them are played by the actual people involved; we sense that in their command of procedure and jargon. When the controllers in the LaGuardia tower see the second airplane crash into the World Trade Center, they recoil with shock and horror, and that moment in the film seems as real as it seemed to me on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Airplane II - The Sequel" (1982) aka "Space Shuttle Not a Plane"

The big difference this time is that the aircraft isn't a passenger jet, but a space shuttle to the moon. After the onboard computer goes haywire, the shuttle departs from course and hurtles through the asteroid belt as it begins to fall toward the sun. (I think the asteroid belt and the sun are in opposite directions, but that, of course, is the last kind of question you're supposed to ask during a movie like this.)

There was a strange thing about the original "Airplane." Even though it was spoof, even though it was an anarchic put on from beginning to end, it somehow did hook into our fears of flying. At some dumb, basic level, we were concerned about how that airplane was ever going to get back to earth again, and our concern gave the movie a narrative thread from beginning to end. Just like the original 1970 "Airport" (itself a pretty silly movie), the original spoof worked partly because of how we feel about airplanes.

"Airplane II" never really seems to know whether it's about a spaceship. It's all sight gags, one-liners, puns, funny signs and scatological cross-references. There's no story. I'm not saying a movie this silly needs to have a story, but it wouldn't have hurt.

Editor's Note: Fortunately for him, but unfortunately for us, Roger Ebert did not review the horrendous 1990 film "Air America" -- which might have been called "Drugs on a Plane." It might also have been called "Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. on a Plane -- Duck!"

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