We ballyhooed the TV career of Jerry Jameson in our review of one of the few times the prolific director was called up to the bigs with the 1974 A.I.P release The Bat People. Jameson was also behind one of the ‘70s quintessential box office “disaster” smashes: Airport ’77, which was backed by Universal Pictures. And since this ABC-TV “Movie of the Week” was known during its overseas television and theatrical runs as Airport ’85, you know why Jameson is here . . . and where this film is heading. Of course, Lee Majors is here, and the reason he’s here is because Jameson directed Majors in several episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man. The duo previously worked together on High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane (1980) and The Cowboy and the Ballerina (1984). (Jameson also gave us the TV movie knockoff of 20th Century Fox’s The Towering Inferno with Terror on the 40th Floor (1974).)
The brains behind this production is Henry Winkler — and “The Fonz” made sure John Dkystra’s contributions to the film were front and center in those promo materials. And the Airport series* of films were box-office hot in the ’70s and, as we learned from our 2020 end of the year “TV Movie Week” tribute, the Big Three networks relished stuffing their disaster hangers with a slew of low-budgeted airline action flicks**. So, Star Wars meets Airport, it is!
And to whip that pitch into shape, TV scribes Robert Malcolm Young and Peter R. Brooke didn’t take any chances in concocting their Star Wars TV cash-in: they simply pinched from the 1969 Gregory Peck sci-fi borefest that was Marooned (1969) — and changed out the “Ironman One” capsule from that film with Starflight One, an SST-styled supersonic jet successor, and the Doppelganger Rescue shuttle with the Columbia. The script also bears striking similarities to the 1982 novel Orbit by Thomas Block (Amazon Kindle), but those similarities were chalked up to coincidence and not plagiarism. And if it all seems a bit familiar, like ABC-TV’s SST Death Flight familiar from 1977, then it probably is.
As is the case with the Big Three network flicks of the pre-cable epoch, the passenger cabin is loaded with lots of familiar character actor and TV series faces, in this case we have Hal Linden, Lauren Hutton, Gail Strickland, George DiCenzo, Tess Harper, and the always game Ray Milland — who you’ll remember was in ABC-Universal’s Battlestar Galactica feature film, but opted out of the series. And yes, that is Terry “Uncle Bernie” Keiser on board — who also co-starred with Majors in Steel (1980; also reviewed this week).
So, the poster . . . along with the Star Wars and Airport connections says it all, right?
Okay, so we have the big, media-covered maiden flight for Starflight One, a hypersonic jet that can travel from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, in two hours. Of course, there’s romance and corporate intrigue on the flight, with Cody Briggs (Lee Majors) two-timing his wife Janet (Tess Harper) via Erica Hansen (Lauren Hutton), a media relations rep with the airline run owned by, you guessed it, they ubiquitously gruffy Ray Milland. And we’ve got a greedy crook using the flight to transport some stolen gold out of the country, and Terry Keiser is on board as an equally greedy communication magnate stressed out over launching that crucial Saturn V stock footage (off the cost of Australia!) to put his satellite into orbit to corner the world’s TV market.
Uh, oh. The Saturn V goes FUBAR and the rocket debris scatters into Starlight One’s flight path. To avoid disaster, Briggs climbs the jet — and stumbles into orbital velocity. And the Starlight has no heat shields . . . thus the film’s alternate VHS home video titling as Starlight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land. So, while Dykstra’s on his union-mandated lunch break, it’s time to cue that shuttle Columbia stock footage (not once, but twice!) to deliver emergency fuel on the first flight, and some flimsy flexible conduit to save the 70-plus passengers on the second flight. Bottom line: If you want to see a very game Hal Linden drifting through a flexi-space tunnel to safety, then this is your film.
Truth be told, in spite of its low-budget, Dykstra’s effects are pretty good . . . well, those those outer space scenes of astronauts drifting about is more of the Salvage I variety, really. And more like when Battlestar Galactica: TOS tanked in the ratings and the effects went to cheesy feldercarb courtesy of budget cuts. So, sorry, please leave those “Star Wars” claims at the spacegate, Kubrick. This was certainly fun-filled when we were Lucas-drunk in our tweens and early teens, but this — unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running (which Dykstra also worked on), and Star Wars — doesn’t hold well to the test of time. But it’s still a hell of a lot better than that stranded-in-space hokum Murder In Space (1985) starring the not-even-they-can-save-it-cast of Wilford Brimley, Michael Ironside, and Martin Balsam — a detective-cum-murder mystery-in-space TV movie plotting trope that didn’t get better with the likes of Murder by Moonlight (1989) and Trapped in Space (1994).
* We reviewed all of the Airport movies with our “Watch the Series: Airport” feature.
** You can catch up with all of those TV movie airline disaster flicks with our “Airline Disasters TV Movie Round-Up” feature.