Jack Smight's Airport 1975 was four years and a whole Hollywood world away from George Seaton's Airport (1970). Gone were the likes of Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Van Heflin, Lloyd Nolan, Dana Wynter, Helen Hayes, et al. and, on the production end, Alfred Newman, Edith Head, Ernest Laszlo, Preston Ames, et al. In their places were a more ragged and even downright silly cast (halfway toward the parody of Airplane), and a threadbare-looking production, at least by the standards of a feature film. Indeed, Airport 1975 seems like a hybrid, somewhere between a made-for-TV movie and a theatrical feature. It was shot in Panavision, but offers a score, by John Cacavas, that sounds like a dry run for the music he wrote for Kojak. Also, the opening credits have a cheap, flat look about them, with minimal style to their design or care in their editing or structure (whereas Airport's opening credits were exciting, as well as a study in slick editing) -- even the lack of crowds and extras make it look more like something out of a movie of the week.
Once the movie actually gets going, it looks a little better, though the screen is filled with names that would mainly be associated with television in years to come, including Erik Estrada, Norman Fell, Conrad Janis, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Sid Caesar, Ed Nelson, Beverly Garland, Christopher Norris, and Jerry Stiller, interspersed with some real movie veterans, including Myrna Loy (trying to be this movie's Helen Hayes) and Gloria Swanson, plus one former star (Dana Andrews) on his last legs. Add to all of that one star treading water (Charlton Heston) in his career and another collecting the biggest paychecks and on his way to the biggest billing of his career (George Kennedy), one pop singer (Helen Reddy) doing one of the most wretchedly miserable acting turns ever attempted by a vocalist, Linda Blair turning in a performance so scarifyingly bad that she makes her role in The Exorcist look benign, and one genuinely talented actress (Karen Black) trapped in the middle of this mess, and you've got the makings for a real train wreck of a movie. That's was what happened on subsequent entries in the series, but what averts that outcome here is the presence of a suspenseful plot supported by excellent special effects and aerial photography (which can only be appreciated seeing the film letterboxed), and the fact that the three stars and the lesser-known supporting players, such as Alan Fudge and John Lupton, perform well enough that the movie leaps over the seemingly impossible chasm of its schlocky casting and production, and a script so bad that it even has Caesar's character making light of the drinking problem that blighted his life.
Needless to say, this was not a movie that producer Jennings Lang was going to be proud of -- it was made, like Jaws 2, Jaws 3, etc. from the same studio, to make some easy money for the studio -- but there is one supremely ironic moment early in the film that should have shown anyone involved in this movie just how far from producing anything of real cinematic value they were. The in-flight movie is George Lucas' American Graffiti, which showed a level of invention and a loose, free-flowing approach to cinematic storytelling that makes this movie seem all the poorer -- indeed, in one of the great ironies of surrounding this movie, American Graffiti has rated a serious special edition DVD from Universal, whereas no one would ever seriously propose a special edition of Airport 1975.