Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Zero Hour!

I kinda dig movie titles with exclamation points.

Zero Hour! is the 1957 Canadian film lampooned brilliantly by Airplane! in 1980. The Zuckers certainly drew on other sources for the avalanche of gags in their film, but Zero Hour! is the solid core of it.

In the closing months of World War II, hotshot Canadian pilot, Ted Stryker, leads a RAF squadron on a daring mission into fog-bound Germany. He also ends up leading six of his pilots straight into the ground.

A decade later, Stryker, a talented pilot who made a mistake, is down on his luck for having avoided flying since the disastrous mission. Finally landing a decent job, he jauntily skips home to find a note from his wife. You saw this coming: she's gone. Stryker rushes to the airport just in time to see her board a plane with their son. He manages to get a ticket and board the plane at a speed that would give a TSA agent a conniption. He then sets about trying to reconcile with her, but she's had it up to here with his mopey bullshit.

Soon, passengers begin falling ill after some horrendously bad halibut is served for dinner. A doctor is drafted from amongst the passengers, and the situation quickly becomes dire - the doctor informs the pilot that if he doesn't land, and soon, there'll be a planeload of corpses landing at Vancouver.

Then, the crew collapses. They had to, or this would have been a pretty boring film.

Now, the auto pilot is all that stands between 38 passengers and oblivion. You can imagine how much I wished the inflatable Otto popped up during this scene.

Turns out that Stryker is the only person onboard with any piloting experience. He's not happy to hear that. He resists being enlisted, but, no, seriously, the stewardess and doctor tell him, either you fly or we crash, and if you're not quick about it, a bunch of people, including your son, will die of food poisoning. Sweat beads on everyone's forehead.

Stryker takes the pilot's seat, joined by his wife, who will work the radio. It's awkward, given the situation. I mean, she just tried to leave him and then told him she couldn't love a man she didn't respect. Yikes. This is almost as bad as when I got dumped in couples counseling.

Did I mention there's a guy onboard whose entire entertainment career is using a sock puppet? Did I mention that he tries to entertain the only kid onboard, Stryker's son? Did I also mention that it's all played seriously, making it geometrically creepier than anything in Airplane!? Well, I'm mentioning it now, and it is.

Sterling Hayden shows up at Vancouver air traffic control to browbeat Stryker to a safe landing. I wonder about the wisdom of having this specific guy, who was Stryker's officer in the war and who thinks he's garbage, man the mic for talking Stryker through it. Hayden's idea of keeping a calm demeanor and inspiring confidence is bellowing into the mic at full blow as he degrades the guy he's trying to help.

From there, it's what you'd expect. Stryker flashes back to the war and puts the plane into a dive. Passengers moan and squirm. Some old guy swigs liquor straight from the bottle. The stewardess and the sock-puppet guy talk about getting married. The doctor dispenses morphine like aspirin. Everyone in Vancouver loosens his tie and looks unshaven after just a couple of hours. Sweat continues to bead on foreheads. The fog is too thick, but Stryker has to land right now.

This movie is a lot of fun. It's a pretty tight film, with the plot clipping along at a gallop. Airplane! parodied the film almost shot-for-shot. So, if you've seen Airplane!, you'll be waiting for the other shoe to drop in most scenes. That's in spite of the fact that the joke will never come, and you know it. Still, Zero Hour! is actually good in and of itself, completely separate from the Bizarro World remake of it in Airplane! Much of the acting is pretty good, with Dana Andrews and Sterling Hayden both standing out. There is some outstanding special effects work, especially the opening World War II air battle using a lot of model work mixed in with full-sized props and real action shots. It's a sharp '50s thriller, and holds up well, with or without a viewing of Airplane! to bolster it.

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