I’ve been reading with great sadness the unfolding news about the crash landing of the Korean jetliner at San Francisco Airport. Normally, of course, airports these days feel like giant bus terminals, full of too many people but not much in the way of drama. An irony: I just flew out of that very same San Francisco International Airport barely a week ago. A second irony: I just saw the latest release from bad-boy Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. It’s called I’m So Excited, and it’s an outrageous parody of those tense airline near-disaster movies we know and love. (Think sex, drugs, and flamboyant gay hijinks in the cabin and – especially – in the cockpit.) Did I like it? Not so much. Truthfully, Airplane! (produced in 1980 by my former New World Pictures colleague Jon Davison) was a whole lot funnier. Surely you would agree (and don’t call me Shirley).
Movies set on airplanes have long been popular because of their dramatic possibilities. You have a diverse group of people in a confined space, going on a journey that could prove either exhilarating or tragic. I suspect that even the most frequent flyer occasionally feels a twinge of anxiety. As we realize all too well, so many little things can go wrong. Like weather issues . . . mechanical failures . . . terrorists . . . a pilot who can’t handle the pressure . . . a rash of food poisoning . . . snakes on a plane. Depending on how seriously the filmmakers approach their story, the result could be Airport or Flight 93 or The High and the Mighty or Airplane! or (yes) Snakes on a Plane.
Recently I visited Santa Monica’s Museum of Flying to see a fascinating exhibit devoted to airport design. It made me realize the complexity of an airport’s mission. It’s committed to safety and security (hence those off-putting TSA screening lines), and it needs to move luggage and cargo as well as people. But, given the tensions involved with today’s air travel, it also must be a reassuring environment. Hence the focus on colorful displays, food, and shopping. The star of the exhibit is an airport design specialist named Curtis W. Fentress. He’s the one who gave Denver International Airport its picturesque peaked roof, reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains. Another of his major commissions was the remarkable Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul. Within its confines are a golf course, a skating rink, and a casino. Sadly, this was probably where the doomed Asiana flight took off for San Francisco.
The exhibit got me pondering how movies feature airports as key settings. The classic disaster film, Airport (based on Oliver Hailey’s popular novel) juxtaposes its airline-in-danger scenario with the challenges faced by an airport during a mammoth blizzard. The British romantic comedy Love, Actually opens and closes at Heathrow, where arrivals and departures prompt emotional hellos and goodbyes. In 2004, Steven Spielberg directed a small but charming movie, The Terminal, set entirely within the walls of New York’s JFK. It features Tom Hanks as a hapless Eastern European immigrant who, thanks to bureaucratic snafus, lacks the documents to legally enter the U.S., and so creates a life for himself within airport walls. And, of course, the mood of The Graduate is set by Benjamin Braddock’s arrival at LAX, where he somberly rides a moving walkway, picks up his bags from a revolving carousel, and walks through automatically opening doors, all to the eerie strains of The Sounds of Silence. But if his L.A. is a city on automatic pilot, at least he arrives safely.