Sunday, August 9, 2009

Airplane! -- facing your fears

Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker , 1980.

The 70s highlighted the disaster movie genre, with Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and the Airport series. Airplane! introduced the disaster-movie spoof. And having cut their comedic teeth here, the trio of directors went on to other famous parodies, such as Naked Gun and the Scary Movie films. Though seemingly a take off on Airport, it actually rips Zero Hour. The plot is the same; so is the hero's name: Lt. Ted Striker (Robert Hays).

Striker is a WW2 fighter pilot whose war experiences left him mired in the past, fearful of flying. Since he cannot move on from these memories and the pain of those lost, he has lost his love, Elaine (Julie Hagerty in her debut role). She has chosen to move on with her life as an airline stewardess; he is stuck in a taxi-driving job. She is flying high in the sky, he is flat on the tarmac. But when he pulls up at the airport one night and enters the terminal, he is running after Elaine. Throwing caution to the winds, Ted buys a "smoking" ticket to be on the plane to talk to her.

Ted's commitment to his relationship with Elaine and his willingness to pursue her highlights the first of two major issues raised here: running after relationships. Ted realized he wanted what he had lost. What have we lost? Perhaps our relationship with someone has stagnated and is now distant. Are we willing to drop what we are doing and chase after that relationship? It will take work. It does for Ted. But what relationship worth keeping doesn't take work? Will we sacrifice all that we have to recoup what we are missing?

Jesus told two parables about sacrificing all to gain what is worth more. Speaking of the kingdom of heaven, he spoke of a man who sold all that he had so as to buy a field where great treasure was buried (Matt. 13:44-46). Our relationship with Jesus, is like that. We must be willing to let go of everything we consider precious in this life so we might experience a true and growing relationship with Jesus. Paul said he counted it all as rubbish that he might know Jesus (Phil. 3:7-8).

All the familiar conventions of the airplane disaster movie show up here. There is the strained relationship, and the protagonist-coward facing up to his fears. Both of these offer illustrations of issues we can explore. Add to these, the sick child needing intraveinous medication, a singing nun, and the tense air-traffic controller on the ground (Lloyd Bridges), and the scene is set for the impending disaster.

Airplane! works by having some fine comic actors throwing so many one-liners that some cannot fail to arrive. Peter Graves is Captain Oveur ("Over, Oveur"), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar plays co-pilot Roger Murdock ("Roger, Roger"), although actually as himself. Funniest of all is Leslie Nielsen, who teamed up with these directors for a number of later parodies, as Dr. Rumack. His is the repeated, "Don't call me Shirley" line.

Although it parodies the older Zero Hour, it throws in spoofs of numerous films starting with an opening reminiscent of Jaws. There is a beach scene based on From Here to Eternity. and the anachronistic morphing of a WW2 Casablanca-like bar into a disco straight from Saturday Night Fever, complete with Travolta moves, is simply hilarious. All are played deadpan with purposefully stilted acting.

When most of the passengers and all the crew become ill after eating the fish, there is no one to fly the plane. Striker must choose to let the plane go down or face his fears and overcome them, even while his memories are telling him he cannot do it.

This is the second of the theme-related issues: facing our fears. Like Ted, we all have fears. Some are debilitating, leaving us unwilling to return. Others can be overcome easily. Worst fears tend to linger on. But there almost always comes a time when we must return to these fears and make a choice. When the future of others, even the lives of others, hangs in the balance, we must look our fears in the eyes and stare them down. Only by facing up to them can we overcome and emerge victorious.

The apostle John said perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). God knows our hearts and our minds. He knows what we are afraid of. And he will be there with us. In the most-beloved psalm, the psalmist wrote, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and staff, they comfort me" (Psa 23:4-5). In life, we face the choice to let fear overcome us or to engage it as Ted engaged the controls. Let's put cowardice aside, and be courageous. Jesus is beside us, with us. He will not let us down.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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