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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Airplane! (1980) and Disaster

Best Comedy Movies Airplane
By  · Published on August 21st, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t grab a beer and jump down the inflatable emergency slide.

Part 13 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Disaster” with the classic spoof movie Airplane! .

The Synopsis

A parody of the entire disaster genre, Airplane! sees just about everything go wrong that can go wrong on a jumbo jet. With the pilots incapacitated, a young, former pilot has to overcome his personal fear in order to save everyone.

The Situation

“Disaster” is a confusing situation for modern audiences because one element of it has blossomed while others have fallen by the wayside. Technically it includes a Vanquished Power and a Victorious Enemy or Messenger. Here’s where it gets tricky. For the most part, Disaster refers to the downfall of an empire or a king (like Troy) or the downfall of the entire world (whether that be localized by personal experience or literal, like in 2012).

However, one subsection of Disaster is the Natural Catastrophe – a genre that exploded in the mid-20th century with disaster movies featuring volcanoes erupting, earthquakes rattling, buildings catching fire and ships turning completely upside down. 36 Dramatic Situations writer Georges Polti probably had no idea that one minor grouping in a sea of military-inspired kingdom killers would emerge to become its own cinematic genre. Probably because he couldn’t have foretold the invention of movies.

Here, despite the names sounding strange, the Vanquished Power is the airplane itself (and its passengers) and the Victorious Enemy is a hilarious bout of food poisoning.

The Film

Whereas spoof movies have fallen completely into the dumpster, Airplane! survives as both a relic of its time and a classic example of what parody should aspire to. With few examples of good, quality parody coming out these days, people still flock to the film because it’s a rare gem in a wasteland of faux-comedy dust.

It may seem interesting to examine a parody (and a comedy at that) for a dramatic situation, but the Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahms flick is an amalgamation of so many disaster tropes that it becomes the perfect example – even if it’s also the smallest one. By smallest, I mean that there’s no meteor headed to kill all of earth, there’s no river of lava taking out a continent, there’s not even an entire city in danger. Oddly enough, the one argument against the film being a Disaster Movie is that, well, there’s just not a huge amount at stake. Just a few hundred lives. That’s all.

The beauty of the film is that if it was tilted just slightly to the side and didn’t include so many slapstick gags, it could very well be taken seriously as a melodramatic piece of fear. A plane is crashing, the pilots are knocked out by illness, and hundreds of lives will be lost if something doesn’t happen.

Most of the comedy comes from this heightened sense of reality. After all, in every dramatic situation, there is a bit of the absurd. That’s the nature of the task set before Ted Striker – no one boards a plane assuming that they’ll have to face their debilitating trauma and bring the sucker in for a safe landing. So, in a way, the film mocks the seriousness and drama of films like Zero Hour! and The Towering Inferno (and lives on to mock movies like Dante’s Peak and Armageddon) by placing an everyman in the exact same situation as the everymen in those films. It surrounds that main situation with wordplay about jive-talking grandmas and religious zealots, but the core of the storytelling comes from similar dialog being delivered with as little as 5% more Daytime Soap Opera School of Acting over-the-topness.

Even the cast is indicative of how close to the actual disaster genre this movie comes. Instead of the wackiest comedic talents of the day (minus the tell-tale inclusion of Leslie Nielsen), the cast is filled with Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges. Actors known for their exemplary dramatic work. Plus, there’s Kareem Abdul-Jabaar – known for his exemplary dunking work. By taking the framework of the genre – an introduction to major and minor players to give a sense of what’s at stake, the initiation of the disaster, the call to action, and the heroic act by the everyman – and filling the scenes with lines about gladiator movies instead of heartfelt conversations (which often come of as laughable anyway), Airplane! is able to make a film that turns the idea of the Disaster on its funny bone while keeping all of the cliches intact.

Another thing to keep in mind specific to the dramatic situation: the tragedy itself is also part of the comedy. Something as small as an illness can take out the most important people in a life-protecting situation. Something that small can cause something so tragically large to occur.

No, there is no huge battle with a king falling to his knees at the end. There’s no volcano sending California into the Pacific. There’s an airplane full of people, and they’re all about to shuffle off their mortal coil if something isn’t done. Mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters will all perish at the hands of a horrific fireball of steel and glass if a hero can’t be found.

In a situation as grave and dramatic as that, surely you can’t be serious.

Bonus Examples: Armageddon, Volcano, The War of the Worlds

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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