The Five Worst Air Disaster Movies


The best one. Even the music doesn’t sound like an Irwin Allen building falling down. It sounds as sweet as Claire Trevor and Laraine Day.

Not that one is needed, but there is a line of reasoning here. There was a good air disaster movie once, called The High and the Mighty. Then there was Fate Is the Hunter and subsequently many others, reaching an apogee with a series of blockbusters named Airport Something.

All but the last of these featured professional pilots landing airliners in extraordinary trouble. John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Dana Andrews, Charlton Heston. You know. Men. Then the bottom fell out. Suddenly, damaged and stricken airliners had to be landed by someone other than a commercial airline pilot. Some movies stand out. That’s our subject for today. Read and learn.

Terror in the Sky. This isn’t one of the five. It’s the line of demarcation between the excusable past and the inexcusable present. When I broached the title to my wife and asked for nominations, she said Airplane.

Wrong! Airplane was the movie that swept away all previous air disaster movies.


Completing the circle: Robert Stack was the pilot John Wayne slapped in The High and the Mighty.

Airplane cleared the field for a raft of new abominations. Why Terror in the Sky is not on our official list. Its claim to fame is that it was the movie Airplane was based on. An airliner is crippled by food poisoning, and a desperate stewardess discovers that a Vietnam helicopter pilot is the only flier on the passenger manifest. He’s a PTSD case (obviously) and has to overcome his personal demons to land a vehicle the like of which he has never flown. Hilarious. Starring Doug McClure. It was almost funny enough in its own right not to require the gigantic hit spoof. But not quite. Why, incidentally, Leslie Nielsen owes his late and unforeseen comedic career to the guy who played Trampas in The Virginian TV series.

Sorry. Getting into the weeds here. Bear with me. My writing bones are broken at the moment, or at least sprained. Forgive me. What I’m aiming to convey is that in air disaster movie terms, Airplane made the tabula suddenly rasa.

Anyway. The new narrative had been set. Thanks to Doug McClure and Robert Hays, we knew that absolutely anybody can land a heavily loaded 747. And then anybody and everybody did. Starting with the president of the United States.

Air Force One. Time for an important point of definition. A bad movie can still be fun to watch. As are all of the movies on this list. I’ve watched Air Force One a bunch of times. It’s abundantly enjoyable. It’s also a terrible movie. But you’d have to be dead or not American to experience no thrill when President Harrison Ford says, “Get off my plane!”

Executive Decision. A movie with something for everybody except people who insist on good movies. Steven Seagal haters get to see the worst CGI effects ever in his unexpectedly early death scene. Halle Berry fans get to see her do all the heavy lifting while Kurt Russell skulks from baggage compartment to cargo bay in his tuxedo. I forget who the terrorist is, but he can’t stop one of them from landing the plane.

Snakes on a Plane. Oops. Did I already use the phrase “worst CGI effects ever?” Apologies. As a guy with a lifelong fear of snakes, this soporific movie featured some of the most lifeless plastic serpents ever shown on screen. The Samuel Jackson part was also lost on me. A guy getting a paycheck for what amounted to an Internet hoax: Make this movie and we’ll come see it. Except we won’t and didn’t. Because it was a bad bad movie with only one redeeming moment. The plane landed by a video gamer who had flown airliners virtually on the Internet. Cool.

Airspeed. Now we’re getting somewhere. From ludicrous to, er, ludicrouser. Spoiled brat on a private jet pisses everybody off and then has to save everybody’s life in an impossible sequence of events that includes a failed attempt to inject Charlton Heston (or somebody) into the cockpit en route. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Turbulence. Just saw this one. It’s so horrendously wonderfully awfully transcendently bad that it’s the reason for this whole post. A fine cast in an embarrassing disaster of a disaster movie. Ray Liotta is a serial killer who insists he’s innocent. He isn’t, of course. He’s Ray Liotta. Lauren Holly is still just young enough to be a stewardess. Ahem. So she lands the plane after hours and hours of running and falling and dropping convenient weapons until Ray finally almost begs her to shoot him in the head and get to the closing credits. The coolest ever. Then Lauren goes on a date with Ben Cross. What more could you want?

Honorable Mention: Passenger 57. My wife mentioned this one. I don’t remember it. I mean I’ve seen it and all, but I have no recollection of the event.

  1. Tim’s avatar

    Wow, thanks for the memories.

    Airplane: one of those movies, like Baseketball, I can’t turn off. I’ll tell myself, “Just one more gag…”

    Passenger 57: two of the most classic stupid movie lines ever. “How would you like your steak, sir?” Bad guy answer: “BLOODY.” And of course, Wesley Snipes: “Always bet on black.” Because he’s black. Get it? Only other thing I remember about this movie: the plane was in Louisiana, Mississippi, or one of those other Sheriff J.W. Pepper states and a host of white cops beat on Wesley Snipes as he escapes from the plane. Logic being he jumped out of the hijacked plane and is black, ergo he must be the hijacker. It’s how southern people think. So I’ve heard, anyway.

    Executive Decision: the only thing I remember was being extremely overjoyed at Segal’s surprise early death. So good. Everything else, I’m drawing a blank.

    Air Force One: thought this movie was incredibly cool in middle school. Watched it again ten years later and I agree: terrible but enjoyable.

    Haven’t seen the rest.

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