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!

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Back in Time


Marty McFly can't understand what all the fuss is about.

Marty McFly can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Claudia Wells, Bob Gale, Don Fullilove, James Tolkan, Huey Lewis, Alan Silvestri, Andrew Probert, Dean Cundey, Dan Harmon, Adam F. Goldberg, Bill Shea, Frank Price, Rob Klein, Ed Dennis, Tyler McDonald, Martin Sanchez, Adam Kotras, Joe Wolser, Jill Henderson. Directed by Jason Aron

When it opened in 1985, Back to the Future was an immediate sensation and a runaway hit. Some have proclaimed it the perfect movie; nearly everyone in the industry praises the script as one of the best ever written, making a time travel story work (much harder than you’d think) but supplying it with memorable characters, plenty of thrills, great eye candy (for its time) and thought-provoking situations. After all – if you traveled back in time when you were high school age and met your parents while they were in high school, would you have hung out with them?

That’s at the heart of what Back to the Future is. Thirty years after the original, we have finally surpassed the date that Marty McFly came to the future – from this point forward the entire trilogy takes place in our past.

In many ways a cultural touchstone, we mostly all grew up or have been fascinated by as adults with the concepts of hoverboards, self-lacing Nikes, jackets that blow-dry themselves, lawyers being abolished and of course flying cars. This was a bright future – not necessarily pristine as there were bad neighborhoods, drug abuse, poverty, crime and Griff who was a little bit of everything with a bionic twist.

Now we’ve reached that era and while it isn’t exactly the future that Zemeckis and Gale envisioned, they did get a few things right – including 80s nostalgia, thousands of cable channels and Mr. Fusion. Just kidding about the last one.

This documentary looks not only at the movies and in particularly the sequence set in 2015, but also at the BTTF fandom, including the Flux Capacitors rock band (who will be playing in a road show along with screenings of the movie in select cities starting next month) and Delorean enthusiasts who have had their cars customized to look like the time machine. Some of these are even street legal.

While I have to admit that the interviews with Michael J. Fox were a little bit hard to watch – yes, all the cast members are 30 years older but Fox’s Parkinson’s reminds us that he has been through a lot more than most of us have been through over that same time – it is clear that everyone involved with the movie has fond memories not only of the shoot but of the public’s reaction to it and the continued enthusiasms displayed by the fans.

Some folks might not realize that when the movie first started shooting, Fox wasn’t available because of his Family Ties commitments; actor Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty instead. However, six weeks into shooting it became clear that Stoltz, who is a very fine actor, just wasn’t right for the part. They managed to then get Fox, who would film his television show on weekdays and on weeknights and weekends would do the movie. It was exhausting but was clearly worth the effort because we, the viewing public, not only got a classic TV show from the deal but also a classic movie trilogy.

I have to admit that I appreciated the fan stories much more than the professional talking head interviews, much of the material for which has been covered in interviews on DVD and Blu-Ray editions that are easily available, much of it on the new 30th anniversary Blu-Ray collection. In some ways, this documentary is a bit of a disappointment; the editing appears a little haphazard, the flow of the film is a little choppy and as I said, the reliance on talking heads is too much.

Still, the movie is so good, so iconic, so central to Western culture that it is hard to watch this movie and not feel the warm fuzzies inside. We all connect to the trilogy whether we saw it as children or as adults. Even if the insights here aren’t especially new or revealing, it is still fun to revisit the movies as well as the fans who have been so devoted to them. Zemeckis has said that there will be no Back to the Future 4 (although I’m a big believer in “never say never”) so we will have to make do with this and what transpires in comic books and videogames that are inspired by the film. With the recent milestone in our review, it is a very good time to go back in time.

REASONS TO GO: Clearly a labor of love. Fan stories are quite interesting. The background of Zemeckis’ previous films gives good context.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking head overload. A bit disjointed. Doesn’t feel fully formed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some references to the sexuality of the trilogy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original Back to the Future had its initial surprise premiere at the Century 21 theater in San Jose, California.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix, Vimeo, Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trekkers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness commences!