Friday, August 26, 2011

Legends of Flight 3D: Mostly soars

Legends of Flight 3D (2010) • View trailer for Legends of Flight 3D
3.5 stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.26.11

If science class movies had been this cool, I never would have fallen asleep in school.

But, then, IMAX documentaries never have been run-of-the-mill educational films.
The Boeing 787 slowly takes shape in the aircraft design company's enormous
facility at Everett, Wash.: the largest enclosed building in the entire world.

Stephen Low's Legends of Flight offers tantalizing glimpses of aviation history, some nifty aerial footage and an unabashed love letter to Boeing. Indeed, when the final credits unspooled and mentioned that "the producers wish to thank all the fine folks at Boeing," I leaned over to my Constant Companion and murmured, "Um, I think that's backwards; all the fine folks at Boeing should be thanking the producers."

Really, this couldn't be a more blatant valentine to a single corporation.

But while such issues of crass commercialization are vaguely irritating, they don't detract from the sheer, unadulterated joy of the subject itself. From our days in the caves, mankind has dreamed about flying. That has never, ever changed, and we therefore enthuse over anything that conveys the exhilarating sense of wonder certain to be experienced when soaring aloft ... whether in a conventional passenger plane or an eerily silent glider.

Or by simply kicking back in a movie theater seat and vicariously getting a taste of flight, via a massive IMAX screen and cinematographer William Reeve's impressive 3D effects.

More than any other IMAX 3D film — and I've seen numerous — this one truly puts the image in our laps. Even knowing better, one is tempted to grab at stuff that appears to float directly in front of our noses. Reeve gets many amazing shots, whether straight into the spinning heart of a jet engine, or planted alongside the pilot of a passenger airplane, or within eardrum-shattering range as a Harrier Jump Jet takes off.

Indeed, at times we're so close that it's almost overwhelming; the screen image literally spills out beyond the range of our peripheral vision.

Sound editors Michel B. Bordeleau and Peter Thillaye also do a superb job, whether with the ambient noises within an aircraft factory, the roar of engines or the preternatural stillness of a glider in flight above massive, snow-covered mountains.

The "story," per se — it's telling that this film has no credited scripter — follows narrator and Boeing chief test pilot Mike Carriker, who back-stories the 787 program by explaining his company's desire to orchestrate the next big technological leap in passenger aircraft design. The "race" begins just after the turn of the new century, with engineers convinced that design improvements will need to focus on structural materials and wing design, rather than simply relying upon ever-more-powerful engines.

"We wanted to bring back the romance and joy of air travel," Carriker explains, although this particular comment prompts raised eyebrows and snorts of disgust from us viewers. Any deterioration of the "romance of air travel" has nothing to do with the aircraft, and everything to do with nickel-and-dime, price-gouging airlines, outrageously compressed seating, arrogant and brick-stupid TSA "handlers" and a litany of other personal abuses guaranteed to make passengers feel about as valued as sardines in a can.

But this isn't Boeing's fault, of course; they merely build the planes.

Anyway, all eyes fall on the albatross, more than once hailed as God's most perfectly designed flying machine. By blending this bird's aerodynamics with the thinner and "intelligent" wing design found on gliders, a superior aircraft could be built. At least, that was the theory; Carriker does a reasonable job of conveying the scary leap of faith Boeing undertook, a decade ago, after deciding to commit to this project.

And it's a race, because rival Airbus more or less simultaneously began work on what would become its equally impressive A380. As we all know — and as this film dutifully reports — Airbus scored the first goal. The A380 debuted at the 2005 Paris Air Show, and folks clearly were impressed. How could they not be?

Meanwhile, Low's film spends a fair amount of time at Boeing's massive aircraft assembly line — the world's largest building, we're told — in Everett, Wash. Time-lapse photography does a slick job of showing elements of the mighty 787 coming together; blatantly staged "moments of angst" during engineering briefings are, well, about as contrived and silly as similar bits of business on TV "reality" shows.

But the genre seems to demand such stuff and nonsense, and, thankfully, Low holds it to a minimum.

He does a much better job of conveying Carriker's unabashed love of flying and aviation. Through the test pilot's eyes and his obvious devotion, we share in his fondness for "relics" such as the Stearman PT 17 Trainer, a wooden biplane; and Lockheed's classic tri-tail Super Constellation, which set the standard for aircraft comfort in the 1950s and created the whole notion of the romance of flight, not to mention a handful of memorable torch songs (invariably covered by Frank Sinatra).

Low also takes us on a computer-generated "virtual tour" of the Boeing 787 schematics, a fascinating bit of CGI magic that is, in its own way, as dizzying as the aforementioned glider's plunges between white-capped peaks.

On the other hand, this film's reliance on computer animation goes overboard at times. Would it have been so difficult to film an actual albatross in flight, as opposed to feeding us only a CGI rendering? Ditto with the needlessly cute CGI honeybees, introduced as another example of God's superb aerodynamic design; again, it simply wouldn't have been that hard to include genuine, macro-photographed honeybees.

Similarly, while our brief glimpse of the Airbus A380 first-class section is tantalizing, with its luxuriously spaced reclining couch-beds and private viewscreen amenities, one can't help wondering about the price of such comfort ... or precisely how crowded (yet still expensive) the A380 equivalent of coach is. Let's get real!

So no, Low's love letter to Boeing can't be ranked among the best IMAX documentaries. But this film nonetheless does a fine job of generating awe over the magic of superior, factory-built aerodynamic design ... and it's a genuine thrill when the first 787 finally takes off, years behind production schedule. Its unexpectedly thin, glider-esque wings really are amazing.

"Great planes just seem to love to fly," Carriker observes, and we believe him.

And I'd be happy to fly with this film again.

No comments:

Post a Comment