Living in the Age of Airplanes


A DC-3 brings personnel and supplies to an Antarctic research station.

A DC-3 brings personnel and supplies to an Antarctic research station.

(2015) Documentary (National Geographic) Harrison Ford (narration). Directed by Brian J. Terwilliger

 

We take travel for granted. We step on an airplane and in less than a day we are anywhere else in the world. It was not that much more than a century ago that was not the case at all. Long distance travel was done by ships, or by trains. And it was not that many generations before that that the fastest travel was only as fast as the horse you rode on.

The fact is that for the first 200,000 years of human existence, the only way we got anywhere was by walking. Most human beings never ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born. We had a clearer map of the stars than we did of our own planet. What lay beyond the horizon of our sight might as well have been on the moon; in fact, we could see the moon much more clearly than what was just over the hill.

This National Geographic documentary celebrates the airplane – and I mean celebrates it. Narrated by actor and aviator Harrison Ford, this National Geographic documentary looks at how the airplane has changed the world and is divided into five different sections; the first examines the beginnings of flight and places it in a timeline of human history. Quite frankly, if you look at where the plane lies on that line, it’s barely distinguishable from its end which represents the present.

From there we look at airports as a portal to the globe; step through a gate, sit down and when you rise and emerge through the other gate, you’re in a faraway place; maybe halfway around the globe. Ford also intones that the airplane is the closest thing we have to a time machine in that it can transport us to sites where ancient civilizations once flourished, or to monuments of modern civilizations. It’s a claim that’s a bit histrionic and overly dramatic, but I can see the point.

We also see how much of the things we buy and place in our homes were transported there at least partially by air. We follow a rose plucked in Kenya with 14 days of life left to it; from Kenya it is flown to Amsterdam where it is then shipped via FedEx to Memphis and from Memphis to Anchorage to where it ends up in the dining room of an Alaskan home. We are then shown all the other items in the room that made it to that home through the air.

Finally we see the final stage. “Of all the places airplanes can take us,” muses Ford, “the most meaningful is home.” We see then the airport as a place where reunions take place. Anyone who has taken a trip where they have been separated from their families for any length of time, or visits a loved one they haven’t seen in way too long will appreciate this segment.

The music and images here are well thought out, and make for a fairly thrilling experience. There is an IMAX version of this 42 minute film and I wish I’d seen it in that format; it would have been remarkable. It’s still impressive even in the 2D presentation that you are likely to have at home.

We don’t see the down side of air travel here; the delays, the cramped seating, the expensive food and drink options, the inconveniences and the security checkpoint hassles. However, as Louis CK once said in a comedy routine, we bitch about being delayed half an hour for a trip from New York to Los Angeles that lasts about six to eight hours; a trip that once took fourteen months that the entire party taking it wouldn’t survive. We do have it a lot easier in that regard.

There’s no doubt that airplanes have opened up the world to the average person and made it possible for goods and services – and tourists – to travel the globe. It’s pretty astonishing if you take the time to think about it. While this particular documentary is a bit overly glossy in the style of an industry convention presentation or more to the point, a film in a pavilion at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT, it does remind us that air travel is something that we shouldn’t take for granted. The world would indeed be a very different place without it.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the visuals are amazing. The James Horner score reminds us what a talent he was. The flower segment is absolutely fascinating.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a little bit like a film at an EPCOT pavilion. The subjects don’t flow and there is little connection from one section to the next.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s nothing here that’s not suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Horner, who scored the film, ironically died in an airplane crash shortly after its release.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A plethora of featurettes, deleted scenes and some content from some of the film’s partners including FedEx.
SITES TO SEE: iTunes
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Koyaanisqatsi
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!

Cast Away


Cast Away

Tom Hanks gets primitive.

(2000) Drama (DreamWorks/20th Century Fox) Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Chris Noth, Nick Searcy, Garret Davis, Vince Martin, Jenifer Lewis, Geoffrey Blake, Lari White, David Allen Brooks, Paul Sanchez, Peter von Berg, Dmitri S. Boudine, Semion Sudarikov. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

The poet said that no man is an island, but that is not so. In fact, every person is an island. We are not Borg either with the thoughts of millions in our heads; we are alone inside our skulls, and though we may share space and intimacy with others, at the end of the day it is ourselves we are alone with, no matter what the situation.

For Chuck Noland (Hanks), an executive and troubleshooter for FedEx, the situation is always chaos, perpetual motion on a stopwatch. He travels the world for FedEx, helping various branches become models of efficiency in processing packages for delivery. After a successful stint in Russia, he returns home to a well-deserved holiday break andan adoring girlfriend (Hunt) to whom he pops the question just as he is getting on a plane to put out another fire halfway around the world.

Life, according to John Lennon, is what happens when you’re making plans. In Noland’s case, life is a terrifying plane crash into a stormy sea. Noland eventually washes ashore on a deserted island, but unlike Gilligan and his crew, there are no huts, no supplies of food and no ingenious professors who can do anything except build a shortwave radio. The island is barren, a great big rock in the South Pacific.

After the initial shock, Noland slowly begins to realize that there will be no quick rescue. In certain Hollywood movies, Noland would be an ex-Army Ranger who can survive on a cantaloupe and a thimble for thirty days; in Cast Away, he has few survival skills other than an insatiable will to live, and a picture of his fiancée to motivate him. Chuck mustreinvent himself on a primitive level in order to survive; he must become food gatherer, fire bringer and water bearer. He must survive heat and storm, loneliness and depression, hunger and thirst. He also must survive a tooth that has been bothering him for months and threatens to get infected. He must learn to carry hope with him like a wallet, and fend off the madness slowly encroaching into his mind.

As time goes by, Noland is able to just get by, but even through his dementia he realizes that if he remains on the island he will eventually die. To avoid that, he begins devising a daring escape, using flotsam from the crash and other debris washed up by the sea.

The great majority of the movie takes place on the island. Most of the movie is just Hanks, without music or very much dialogue. Few actors could pull it off, but Hanks again gives an Oscar-nominated performance (the most recent one on his resume to date) that transcends traditional movie logic. If you described to a studio suit a movie with the situation just described, he would undoubtedly respond with have your people call his people, let’s do lunch and don’t let the door hit you in the drawers on the way out.

In this case, the director, Robert Zemeckis, and the star, Tom Hanks, had a certain amount of stroke (considering the previous time they teamed up they delivered Forrest Gump it isn’t hard to see why) and the two had the presence of mind to seek out DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg’s company, to co-distribute. They also had the might of 20th Century Fox behind them.

The results are an amazing movie, full of splendor, beauty and tension. Hanks is perfect in the role. If it were Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson on this beach, you’d expect them to survive. For Hanks, the modern equivalent of Jimmy Stewart, the boy next door is in real deep kimchee in this situation. The movie works because you believe it. During the escape sequence, when Noland’s companion, Wilson, parts, it is an extremely moving moment. Da Queen had a box of hankies for that one.

The movie takes place in three distinct sequences, and as has been noted elsewhere, constituted a break in filming while Hanks emaciated himself and Zemeckis went on to make What Lies Beneath. Our world is full of noise, frenetic motion, a busy cornucopia of career and personal life. The island is quiet, paced as the waves lapping against the shore. Time dilates into a distant memory here. Even the watch won’t work.

On a different level, however, the movie is about time and how we use it — and how it can be taken away from us. Time is a funny thing; it enslaves us, it is a brutal taskmaster but to a very real extent it defines us as well. It is about survival, what we can manage to accomplish in a desperate situation. It is about the island that is all of us. Some of us are rocky promontories in the Pacific; others are Oahu. Either works.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the first great movies of the 21st Century. Another Oscar-caliber performance from Hanks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle part of the film on the island has no music or dialogue which can be disconcerting for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some disturbing sequences here, particularly the plane crash and the body of the pilot arriving on the island.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Chuck Noland names his volleyball companion Wilson after the sporting goods manufacturer. Tom Hanks is married to Rita Wilson, and played a character named Kip Wilson in “Bosom Buddies.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a Charlie Rose interview with Hanks, as well as feature-length documentaries on real live survival situations (and how survival experts put writer William Broyles through a survival course) and on the island that was used to film the South Pacific sequences – both are extraordinarily interesting. These are, strangely enough, only available on the 2 Disc DVD edition; they are missing from the Blu-Ray edition which does have a trivia track if you’re into such things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $429.6M on a $90M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: That Evening Sun