The Big Bus (1976)

The Big Bus (1976)

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They couldn't afford an actual hospital, it seems.
They couldn’t afford an actual hospital, it seems.

Twitter Plot Summary: The spoof disaster movie story of the first nuclear powered bus as it travels from New York to Denver.

Five Point Summary:

1. Doctor in the parking lot.
2. Broken carton of milk.
3. He may have eaten a foot. Once.
4. Bomb threat!
5. Hanging on a ledge.

Coming from similar stock to the ludicrously funny Airplane style movie, The Big Bus lampoons that stalwart favourite of 1970s cinema – the disaster movie. This time it’s not a big building on fire, an airplane crash or even a giant cruise ship being overturned by a freak wave. No, this is all about… wait for it… a double decker nuclear powered bus. This isn’t just any run of the mill bus though, featuring a ten pin bowling lane, a built-in bus-wash, and an indoor swimming pool – the height of 70s beige opulence.

Driving the nuclear bus are outsiders Dan Torrance (Bologna), who is reviled by his fellow bus drivers for supposedly eating 110 passengers following an ill-fated bus crash on Mount Diablo, and a moustachioed co-driver by the name of Shoulders (Beck). The project is led by Stockard Channing’s Kitty Baxter after a terrorist bomb takes her father out of commission. As tradition dictates, Kitty and Torrance were once a couple just to add an element of frisson to the journey. And it wouldn’t be a disaster movie if there wasn’t some epic threat to everyone’s lives. Thus, a bomb is planted on the bus and it’s a race against time, so to speak, to stopping the slightly nefarious plans and make it to Denver in one piece.

The secondary cast features a number of what would later become famous faces, of you know who to look for of course – Larry Hagman appears as a strict yet slightly incompetent doctor, whilst Rene Auberjonois (later to appear as Odo in Star Trek DS9) shows up as a young priest questioning his beliefs and asking “Where is your God now, old woman?”

It was the 1970s. That is all.
It was the 1970s. That is all.

The humour may not be as refined as the later Airplane or Naked Gun films, but that doesn’t stop it from remaining incredibly funny. Silly little jokes like two men in radiation suits bumping into everything as they plod forwards, or an evil villian (Ferrer) spending the entire movie plotting the destruction of the bus from the comfort of his iron lung, or even an overly amorous couple whose divorce is due to go through at midnight throwing themselves at each other at every opportunity.

In this line of humour the best approach is to play it completely straight, and that’s precisely what they do. Maintaining a stern appearance in the face of inherent silliness, the cast push it through but lack the chops to elevate it into anything more than a relatively unknown cult favourite. Airplane clearly stole the format and improved it by making it a hundred times funnier, and if you look close enough (or not actually – it’s quite blatant) there are elements of Speed to the story. It’s more hit and miss than it should be and the final act slows everything down far too much, but The Big Bus does at least get the tone of the 70s disaster movie spot on, and manages to have some fun with the notion of a bus running on nuclear power. But then, is there anything else you can do with that notion other than have fun with it?

Score: 3/5

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