WTF Happened to Airplane II: The Sequel?

The WTF Happened to This Movie series takes a look at director Ken Finkleman’s 1982 comedy Airplane II: The Sequel

When 1980’s Airplane! proved to be a massive hit, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of the year – up there with The Empire Strikes Back and Best Picture winner Kramer vs. Kramer – it was inevitable that it would get a sequel. But how often are comedy sequels good anyway? When have they ever really recaptured the magic and the laughter of the original? Well, Airplane II: The Sequel gave it a go…by basically being the same movie. Except this time around, ZAZ wisely opted out, leaving the production without the strong leaders who reinvented the spoof genre. Instead, they got the guy who wrote Grease 2, one of the most notoriously awful sequels ever! So, strap in – no, not to an airplane but a space shuttle – as we find out: WTF Happened to This Movie?!…The Sequel!

1980’s Airplane! did incredibly well upon release, making just under $85 million on a $3.5 million budget, an astonishing return. And so Paramount naturally greenlit a follow-up, re-enlisting the trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker – collectively known as ZAZ – to work their magic yet again. And so they did – for about a half hour or so. ZAZ indeed got the rocket fired up for the Airplane! sequel, even though they had zero interest. This was evident early on, and so they left to focus on spoof series Police Squad!, which also explains why Leslie Nielsen would be one of the few stars of the original Airplane! to not return for Airplane II. As Jerry Zucker put it, “They offered Airplane II to us, they wanted us to do it, but we just—I mean, some movies are great for sequels ’cause there’s more you can do, but the idea of trying to come up with another 90 minutes of airplane jokes or airplane-in-trouble jokes was just not what we wanted to do. So we just said, “Thank you, but no.” And so instead Ken Finkleman was brought in for both script and directorial duties. And if you don’t know who that is, a lot of people didn’t prior, as he was more equipped in the world of Canadian comedy television. He, too, wrote the script for another sequel: Grease 2

So let’s get a brief overview of the plot of Airplane II: Robert Hays’ Ted Striker must save the day after it’s found that the flying craft he’s on board is facing certain doom, all while trying to win back Julie Hagerty’s Elaine Dickinson. Oh, wait, is that the plot of 1980’s Airplane!? Of course not because this one takes place aboard a space shuttle. See? Completely different!…and weird considering the movie is still called Airplane…Look, there’s a reason Elaine tells Ted, “I have the strangest feeling we’ve been through this exact same thing before.” Oh this movie was more self-aware than ROK!

WTF Happened to Airplane II: The Sequel?

But taking the movie from 35,000 feet in the air up to the depths of space didn’t sit right with some, chiefly the ZAZ team, who, 25 years after the release of Airplane!, still had an issue with it, with Jerry saying, “Just the idea that it was, what, a future mission to outer space or something like that? To do satire on something that doesn’t exist, that’s a rule broken. Or at least it’s one of ours, anyway.” At best, it would allow for the set-up of easy spoofs of sci-fi classics like Star Wars, E.T. and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, really, how different does it need to be? Nobody watched Airplane! for the plot (itself ripped from 1957’s Zero Hour!). We watched it to see what the Kentucky Fried Movie guys could do with a full-blown narrative. So why did we bother with Airplane II if ZAZ wasn’t on board? Well, because we loved Airplane! so much.

And so did a lot of the original cast, with Hays, Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and Stephen Stucker all reprising their roles, with Stucker even taking on a blind court stenographer, ripping on Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. More supporting actors leftover from the first movie include Lee Bryant (Mrs. Hammen), the jive-talkin’ Al White (Jive Dude/Witness) and David Leisure (Religious Zealot). Added here would be Chad Everett as Simon Kurtz, Rip Torn as Bud Kruger and Raymond Burr as The Judge. There would also be appearances from the likes of William Shatner (lending to Star Trek spoofs), Laurene Landon, Sonny Bono (his then-wife Susie was sacked from the movie) as a bomb-wielding madman, John Vernon, and, yes, Hervé Villechaize, then appearing in Fantasy Island, not to mention brief glimpses of game show hosts Art Fleming and Pat Sajak. Some keen eyes will also spot pre-fame appearances from the likes of David Paymer and George Wendt, the latter uncredited. At one point, actor Aldo Ray was attached to play a character named Sgt. Maj. Gus Greavy…but it doesn’t take a lot to notice that neither Ray nor the character are in the final movie. Also in the mix were Kent McCord as Unger and James A. Watson Jr. as Dunn, two of those “punny” names that get overdone a la “Roger”, “Oveur” and “Victor”, showing just how much Finkleman and company were relying on all that came before it. And there is a lot of recycled material in Airplane II, right from the get-go:

Airplane II opens with yet another direct spoof of a box office champ. But instead of taking on Jaws, Airplane II opens with a twist on Star Wars crawl, with its own little perversions. And then there are the flashbacks and recurring one-liners that rip the original’s “All together” and “A __? What is it?” bits. And there are absurd cockpit visits from children and jive talk and slapping women senseless and ridiculous spinning headlines and Hare Krishna gags and Ted’s drinking problem and our hero boring an old lady to death and Lloyd Bridges posing in front of his own photo and on and on and on. Even one of the posters was just a lazy rehash, tacking on another twisted airplane. Another one at least had Santa hanging on for his dear life to tie into the December release.

Still, it’s like everybody knew that this association would be enough. And so with that script – complete with all of the lazy (or is it resourceful?) riffs on its predecessor’s best bits – Airplane II: The Sequel was approved with a $15 million budget, more than four times that of the original. Filming began on June 2nd, 1982, just a week or so before the Finkleman-penned Grease 2 opened…at #5 at the box office, casting a bit of a cloud over the production. Eight weeks later, filming wrapped and soon enough Airplane II was ready for release. But just in case anyone thought they were behind the sequel, ZAZ reiterated in the press that they had absolutely no involvement with or connection to the movie, perhaps sealing its eventual fate at the box office.

WTF Happened to Airplane II: The Sequel?

But before it could open wide, Airplane II – like 1980’s Airplane! – had its own advanced screening. But unlike Airplane!’s inadvertently disastrous showing – in which reels were played out of order by accident – somebody behind Airplane II sought to take more control. As the story goes, someone had the brilliant idea to play a prank on the attendees, reportedly giving out 3D glasses to view the film through…with the audience taking a bit of time to realize the movie wasn’t actually in 3D!

Hype was strong for Airplane II, with people even reportedly getting turned away at the doors of its October 1982 sneak preview in San Diego. But this did not translate at the box office when it finally launched on December 10th, 1982, a quick turnaround compared to the original, which began filming in June 1979 and wasn’t released until the following summer. Airplane II: The Sequel opened at just $5.3 million, putting it at #2, behind The Toy and ahead of 48 Hrs., both also in their debut weekends. In its second week, it dropped all the way down to #6. During its run, it would only take in $27.2 million, compared to the original’s $83.5 million. This, thankfully, killed any hopes there may have been for an Airplane III, something actually teased at the end of the movie, with Peter Graves declaring, “That’s exactly what they’ll be expecting us to do!”

Airplane II: The Sequel was a disaster, and more than 40 years on, its reputation is pretty much where we’d expect it to be, with critics and audiences virtually in sync with their takes: it’s just a retread of the original – and not exactly smart enough to be a spoof of a spoof. Then again, if you loved the original, there’s really no reason you wouldn’t at least like the sequel. You might not laugh as consistently, but the familiarity and variations of the best jokes are sufficient for an easy laugh if you’re willing to play along. That said, ZAZ’s absence was undoubtedly felt and Airplane II demonstrated just how adept and skilled they were at the genre…far more so than the dude who would bring us Head Office.

To date, none of ZAZ has seen Airplane II. But David Zucker did note: “I will say that there were evidently some good jokes in it because sometimes people come up to me and say, “‘Oh, I loved your Airplane! movie and my favorite joke was…’ And then they’ll say some joke I’ve never heard before, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, that must be from Airplane II!’ I mean, it doesn’t happen often. But it has happened.” Surely, he can’t be serious!

About the Author

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Mathew is an East Coast-based writer and film aficionado who has been working with periodically since 2006. When he’s not writing, you can find him on Letterboxd or at a local brewery. If he had the time, he would host the most exhaustive The Wonder Years rewatch podcast in the universe.