Airplane II’s 40th Anniversary: What the Hell Was That?

Surely, this follow-up wasn’t necessary
Airplane II’s 40th Anniversary: What the Hell Was That?

Airplane! is undoubtedly one of the greatest comedies of all time. And because people like money more than letting things be, we got another Airplane! movie just two short years later. In fact, this week marks the 40th anniversary of Airplane II: The Sequel, a movie that reunited the original cast while adding William Shatner and Sonny Bono as a mad bomber for some reason. Looking back at the film, we can’t help but ask: What the hell was that?

Airplane II is a deeply strange movie, one that directly recreates many of the familiar jokes from the first film but repackages them within a sci-fi scenario. It’s basically the storyline as the 1980 film, but instead of an airplane, disaster strikes on a futuristic lunar passenger shuttle, which still mostly just looks like an airplane.

This may have seemed like a financial slam dunk at the time — what studio executive wouldn’t want to combine the comedy blockbuster Airplane! with the box office-friendly space genre? It also allowed the film to lazily rehash much of the original, but with spoofs of Star Wars, E.T. and 2001: A Space Odyssey awkwardly shoehorned in.

The result is a wildly confused comedy. The original Airplane! was a laser-focused parody of 1970s disaster movies (and one very specific 1950s disaster movie), but by tossing a grab bag of random sci-fi riffs into the mix, Airplane II doesn’t even really function as a parody anymore; instead, it’s just a loose assortment of sweaty, disconnected gags. Sure, some of them are admittedly funny — but many more are unfunny, downright cringey and sit about as well as an in-flight seafood dinner.

So what happened? Well, the original directing team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker had absolutely no participation in Airplane II. What exactly transpired isn’t super-clear. There are some reports that the trio “attempted” to make a sequel but ended up abandoning the project in favor of launching TV’s Police Squad, which later inspired The Naked Gun. Other sources claim that they flat-out “did not want to make a sequel.” According to the filmmakers themselves, Paramount “neglected” to secure them for an Airplane! follow-up when they had the chance, and then wasn’t able to convince them to return once the film was a hit.

Instead, the studio turned to Canadian writer Ken Finkleman, who had previously partnered with a pre-SCTV Rick Moranis, producing radio shows and sketch comedy pilots for Canuck audiences. Finkleman had written the script for Paramount’s Grease 2 and was given the chance to make his directorial debut with Airplane II. Finkleman later described himself during this period as a “mid-level hack, a B-list screenwriter who made a very good living stamping out artless product.” After the financial failure of Airplane II and a few other Hollywood misfires, Finkleman ultimately returned to Canada, where he created and starred in the acclaimed satirical TV series The Newsroom

When Airplane II came out, Zucker, Abrams and Zucker were so displeased that they reportedly issued a press release reminding critics “that they had nothing to do with Airplane II: The Sequel.” To this day, the directors still claim to have never seen the movie. And while Paramount began work on a third movie (which was jokingly teased in the end credits), those plans were eventually scrapped when Airplane II: The Sequel bombed at the box office and fared even worse with critics. The review in Variety bluntly stated: “It can’t be said that Airplane II is no better or worse than its predecessor. It is far worse but might seem funnier had there been no original.”

All that said, there are some pluses to the film — not the least of which being the aforementioned addition of Shatner to the cast. While the sequel lost Leslie Nielsen, who was busy making Police Squad, Shatner plays lunar base Commander Buck Murdock with pitch-perfect hamminess — in the same year Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out, no less.

Plus, Airplane II did anticipate some real future events, from the TSA’s nude body scanners to the potential disaster of rushing to commercialize private spaceflight and, to some degree, David Zucker turning into kind of a dick

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