Entries in Disaster Movies (1)


B-TV: Part One - A Small Scale Disaster

(Note: It's late and I'm tired, so I've chosen not to proofread the following post. Please consider any mistakes you might find to be deliberate "Easter Eggs" I left specifically for your amusement)

They don't make TV movies like they used to. Now, that's not me speaking out of any sense of misplaced nostalgia, it's literally true--they DO NOT make TV movies like they did when I was young. That is to say they pretty much don't make them much at all. Beyond the occasional Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, the Big 3 networks have all but abandoned the format in favour of much cheaper reality show programming. This marks a huge change from back when you could count on one or two debuting each week. And, no cable doesn't count. If you can include all of the same shit that you can see in a theater, it isn't a TV movie, it's a movie that premiered on TV. Huge difference. Don't be stupid and make me explain it to you.

When people think about the TV movies of old, they usually remember the soapy, message pictures that seemed to dominate the format. But any B-Movie fan can tell you that many great genre films debuted on the small screen. This continuing feature is dedicated to briefly looking at some classic examples of films that were too big for TV, but way too small for anywhere else.

We begin our examination with a cheesy classic that plays like the redheaded bastard stepchild of the already somewhat disreputable Airport series. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it had originally been written to serve as the fifth film in the series, following The Concorde... Airport '79 (in fact, it was actually released in the Philippines as Airport '85). All of the elements are there--a collection of c-list performers, gratuitous melodrama, and the kind of potential disaster only a ton of drugs could help conceive. It's the kind of film whose utter disregard for anything approaching verisimilitude is so vehement you get the sense that the filmmakers would happily kick you in the nuts if they could, because by that point there's clearly nothing holding them back. Yet, I found this more charming than frustrating--a classic example of imagination refusing to bow down to the petty bullshit of reality. And, believe me, this film bows down to no reality you know.

I am, of course, talking about:

Despite the claims of the above poster, the film originally aired on television in 1983 with the title Starflight: The Plane That Couldn't Land and it was directed by TV movie vet Jerry Jameson, who--wouldn't you know it--just happened to also make a little film called Airport '77.


Jameson was also responsible for the mega-bomb Raise the Titanic, so it's amazing he managed to find any work at all, much less directing TV movies like Starflight. Suffice it to say, the budget of the two films bear absolutely no relation to the other.

Like a lot of Jameson's 80s TV work, Starflight stars Lee Majors, which is awesome. He plays a pilot, which is also awesome. He's also banging single mom publicist Lauren Hutten, which would be gap-toothed awesome, were it not for the fact that he's married to someone else, which makes it adulterously awesome.

The reason Majors and Hutton know each other is because he's the pilot of the groundbreaking flight she's publicizing. The Starflight is a revolutionary hypersonic passenger plane that goes up so far into the atmosphere it can travel to Australia in just over one hour. It's so revolutionary that its creator, Hal Linden, is pretty sure the flight is going to end in disaster. Turns out, he's right!

Actually, the flight would've gone fine, were it not for the desperate actions of sleazy businessman Terry Kiser. Flying to Australia for the launch of the satellite he funded, he's devastated by the news that the launch is going to be postponed, as it will ruin him financially. Consequences be damned, he orders that the rocket be launched anyway. His Australian crony reluctantly agrees, but then blows up the rocket midway through its flight. The resulting debris damages Starflight and forces it to gain even more altititude than it already had. The shocking result is that the plane completely leaves Earth's atmosphere and enters the cold, black darkness of space!

The rest of the film is then naturally devoted to the safe return of most of the passengers (you'll be shocked to learn that Kiser doesn't survive the trip), which is mostly accommodated by a space shuttle that travels to and from Earth with the 15-minute frequency of a public bus.

During this long stretch of film there are moments of genuine tension and excitement (Linden is transported from Starflight to the shuttle via a casket), pure unintended hilarity (the expense of constantly shooting everyone as being weightless is taken care of by the stewardesses rolling out a length of rope for the passengers and crew to hold on as they walk across the plane), and classic disaster movie irony (the airplane mechanic who has to go out into space to repair the plane is afraid of flying!).

Even someone as incapable of giving a flying fuck about science as myself will not be able to ignore the constant barrage of implausibilities. If Starflight can't get back to Earth without blowing up in the blazing furnace of the planet's atmosphere, how the hell did it make it past that same atmosphere to get into space in the first place? How is it that the space shuttle is able to touch down right where it needs to be, every single time, at least half a dozen times in one day? Doesn't Earth's orbit make that impossible? Who's paying for all the fuel required for all these fucking launches? Are these 50+ passengers really worthy an investment that even in 1982 had to be in the high millions, if not billions? Why would Lauren Hutton take her 12 year-old daughter on the maiden flight of an unproven aeronautical innovation that was obviously doomed to failure? Okay, so except for that one expensive scene, we don't see anyone weighless because they're wearing their seatbelts and holding the aisle rope--how come their hats and ties aren't floating around?

I could go on, but won't. Starflight doesn't need to justify its vast array of bullshit. It's a silly TV movie! And that's why we love them. Let the "real" movies worry about such undramatic, story-stopping foolishness like science. Starflight is grounded in its own reality--the B-TV Bullsh*t Zone.

And you wouldn't want it to be anywhere else!