IMAX flick shows helos in a good light

 - May 8, 2008, 6:27 AM

Helicopters have traditionally gotten short shrift in the movies. Either they are blowing up and then burning (or blowing up and burning simultaneously) or serving the interests of the bad guys. In a press conference accompanying the release of the 1983 John Badham film Blue Thunder, a brain-candy melodrama about an ultra-high-tech police helicopter being put to no good purpose over the steaming neon hell of Los Angeles, star Roy Scheider crowed, “This movie is going to do for the helicopter what ‘Jaws’ did for the shark.”

Scheider wasn’t far off (he should know–after all, he starred in both pictures). Not many months later, during an especially acrimonious heliport zoning meeting in Houston, one bewildered helicopter proponent was asked by a concerned citizen if he was going to operate his rotorcraft “using whisper mode.”

When the operator replied that there was no such system, the citizen would have none of it. “Sure there is,” he insisted. “I saw it in that Blue Thunder movie.”

Indeed the film did contain a disclaimer card at its beginning assuring the unaware that all the technology shown in the film was real and in service.

Straight Up! Helicopters in Action has been filmed for initial consumption by a more favorably disposed audience, those mobs that line up at institutions such as the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum (NASM) eager to receive the gospel of the goodness of flight, reinforced by images of flight on NASM’s mammoth five-story IMAX movie screen. Few other types of film are as compelling; IMAX’s 70-mm-wide film, razor-crisp wraparound visibility and Led Zeppelin- intensity sound could make a close-up of a pair of hands opening a box of Ritz crackers into riveting cinema.

Like the 3-D films of the 1950s, IMAX encourages an in-your-face style of filmmaking that lends itself to mammoth images and swooping, sweeping camera technique. You can almost hear the producer thinking, “We’ve used helicopters to make these sorts of scenes for decades, ever since that opening shot zoomed up the mountain and down Julie Andrews’ throat in the unforgettable opening of The Sound of Music. Why not make a movie about the helicopters themselves?”

However, helos by themselves, without much of a story to tell, are admittedly a little dull. But if you’re looking for 42 min of “swoop,” with no explosions, no sinister chuckling bad guys and just the right amount of good feelings, then Straight Up is what you want.

With the IMAX camera firmly strapped on, we race through canyons and over rivers, we go along on a U.S. Marine Corps reconnaissance mission, an air-sea U.S. Coast Guard rescue, the relocation of endangered black rhinos in South Africa, a drug-running interdiction on the high seas, hair-raising high-tension electrical line repair and an alpine avalanche rescue led by Rega, the Swiss national air-rescue organization.

The images are compelling, the narration tautly delivered by TV and movie star Martin Sheen. It’s a seat-of-the-pants film, largely the product of director and cinematographer David Douglas (creator of The Rolling Stones at the Max, and the Academy Award-nominated Fires of Kuwait.) In one especially memorable scene, the 125-lb IMAX camera is attached to a freshly cut log, which is then grappled and hauled into the sky by a heavy-lift helo.

Straight Up! was filmed over the course of 18 months on three continents. Following a stint at NASM’s main theater it will open at selected IMAX venues in major museums throughout the U.S. The film will also
be among the centerpieces of the IMAX theater that will be a part
of NASM’s new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, opening at Washington Dulles International Airport next December. The Udvar-Hazy Center will be home to NASM’s huge collection of vertical flight artifacts, as well as the Smithsonian’s collection of full-size aircraft difficult to display elsewhere.