Reminder of All that Airplanes have Brought, including World Shopping and Families back for Thanksgiving
But Isn’t This Poignant Last Look at Earth at its Peak?
With its Smithsonian premiere tomorrow in Washington, New Yorkers will also now have a chance to catch probably the most resolutely positive documentary on air travel and its benefits ever made.Living in the Age of Airplanes is a 47 minute IMAX, HD 4K digital, Dolby extravaganza of superb shots of the major scenic spots of the world, together with other benefits of the invention of the airplane, such as the flowers and myriad other household goods from half way round the world in every living room, which cranky passengers squeezed into narrow, unforgiving seats in late arriving aircraft never think of anymore. Actually, the gifts of the airplane in this National Geographic special have never looked so good even to those who have actually visited them in person, but no matter. The aim of this all-too-brief, 48 min documentary is to remind us just what a remarkable transformation of human existence has been wrought in a blink of time’s eye by aviation, and it succeeds triumphantly. If anything, it is far too short. Covering all seven continents, from Iguazu Falls, the gigantic Brazilian set of waterfalls 1.7 miles long stretching into Argentina, to the Maldive Islands, where some brilliant shots are taken amid fish under the clear water as the floats of a seaplane take off from the surface overhead.
The filmmakers are undeterred by remoteness or time. They manage to get a rare visit to the South Pole with cinematographer Doug Allan, the Polar wildlife specialist who had spent 30 summers in Antarctica but never reached the Pole, which demands perfect weather to coincide in three airports.What they find there, on top of the two mile thick ice sheet, is a decorative pole and other ceremonial trappings from 12 nations that signed the Antarctic Treaty, in force since 1961. The marker is a barber pole with a mirrored sphere on top, and it now lies several hundred feet from true 90° south, since the ice cap shifts 30 feet every year, and moving the pole and the ring of national flags would be too much trouble. (The US station with its record size neutrino hunting IceCube particle detector is discreetly in the background). But many of the visuals are stunning, new shots of familiar locations and lesser known ones by cinematographer Andrew Waruszewski using the very cinematic, new digital camera Alexa and often accompanied by the overwhelming music typical of IMAX presentations as if vast natural beauty doesn’t speak for itself. Even the platform stretching over the Grand Canyon lends itself to emphasizing the grandeur of the chasm below. But the point the movie makes best is its basic theme, just how immense an acceleration of human life aviation has brought so quickly.
The timeline is, if you think about it, astonishing. For almost 200,000 years we walked at three miles an hour and most humans traveled less than 20 miles from their birthplace. The wheel arrived 5000 years ago, but the steam engine powered the wheel only 175 years ago, when we were still as separated by time and distance as the ancient Egyptians. On screen the map of the USA is lit up by glowing rail connections which networked the entire country by the end of the 19th Century.Then in only a century of aviation, and sixty years of the jet age, the entire globe is lit up with planes like fireflies – 100,000 takeoffs every day, 250,000 people in the sky at any one time. The cliches praising this transformation are all very true: Aviation is now “the lifeblood of the modern world”. The airport is “portal to the planet”. Now “it’s walking distance to almost anywhere”. “What once demanded migration is now a vacation.” The film conveys the sense of wonderful mastery conveyed by this change, without delving into its other consequences. Some may privately feel that the Sphinx loses her mystery when a camel carrying Mum and children comes into view, and others worry about global warming and global disease, not to mention the original sin introduced by aviation, the civilian mass deaths of bombing. But this is a feel good trip to things we experience now without a second thought, but are really marvels of life in the age of the airplane.
“Since we were all born into a world with airplanes, it’s hard to imagine that jet travel itself is only 60 years old, just a tick on the timeline of human history,” says director Terwilliger. “Yet practically overnight, our perception of crossing continents and oceans at 500 mph has turned from fascination to frustration. I want to reignite people’s wonder for one of the most extraordinary aspects of the modern world.”
One reason may be that almost everyone important involved has access to what is now the best benefit of all, the freedom and adventure of flying small planes, for which they feel a personal passion. Funded by GE as the main sponsor, Terwilliger visited 18 countries over several years for this film, a dedication to the topic that arose first from his childhood awe at the performance of the Blue Angels. He made a 2008 film about this team of Navy jet pilots, Flying Full Circle, in which he himself flew in an F-18 Hornet. Filled with enthusiasm Terwilliger soloed at 19 and got his private pilot license a year later, and his first feature film in 2005 was One Six Right, which told of a day in the life of the local Van Nuys airport on Los Angeles.Harrison Ford, also a keen pilot, narrates the film’s expertly written voice over, which compresses great historical trends as skilfully as Eugene Weber (the UCLA professor whose peerless history of Western society, Western Tradition, is still running on CUNY TV). The star keeps a small fleet of airplanes in a Santa Monica hanger, including a Bell 407 helicopter which he has flown to rescue Wyoming hikers. At 72 recently he had to crash land his vintage plane on a golf course, but survived with a gash to the head. The composer, James Horner, who also pilots his own plane, contributes an appropriately stirring score which is only occasionally intrusive (he won two Oscars for Titanic, for the score and a song, ‘My Heart Will Go On’, and the album was the largest-selling instrumental score ever, at 10 million in the US and 27 million worldwide).
Living in the Age of Airplanes will be showing from Friday at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, the National Geographic Leroy R. & Rose W. Grumman Dome Theater (Garden City, NY), and the New York Hall of Science in Queens. If busy New Yorkers can be persuaded to lift their eyes from their phones long enough to get their whole family there, it will give them a new appreciation of all that the airplane has brought to our lives, and perhaps inspire them to transcend the inconvenience of modern air travel and visit faraway places themselves before they all are submerged by the banality of mass tourism, or ultimately sink beneath the ocean rise of global warming.