“A child born into a world with helicopters lives in a world where the miraculous is commonplace, a world where doctors swoop down from the sky…”
That’s the world of the helicopter. Straight Up: Helicopters In Action was an IMAX feature created by the Smithsonian for the Air And Space Museum IMAX theater. A quick check of the museum’s website reveals that the film is no longer part of the schedule. And, while this wasn’t one of the bigger name IMAX films to make the circuit, it provides plenty of the exhilarating imagery that has made the format famous.
The film is narrated by Martin Sheen. It begins with a daring rescue of a woman and her son who have been trapped in their car by an avalanche. The movie then goes on to provide just a brief history of the helicopter and its earlier designs and versions. Here I found the film to be less informative than I hoped. I was expecting to see some archive footage of vintage craft and hear about some of the innovators in the craft’s history. I was hoping to hear about Charles Kaman, who invented many innovations in the modern helicopter, and whose company also makes the Ovation guitars that I play. Instead, the film brushes through these history lessons rather quickly and takes off, pun intended, to the meat of the film. One of the best of these preliminary efforts shows how they are piloted. The demonstrations are quite fascinating, and educational to boot.
You get to see several different kinds of helicopter missions and hear from the workers who do them as a part of their everyday life. The best is about a man who takes helicopter rides to remote power lines, where he hops on the wires from the chopper to do repairs high above the ground. These wires are on mountain tops and are much higher than the ones you are used to seeing over your street. He has to wear a special suit that allows current to flow over his body instead of through it. That would be bad. It’s certainly the most unusual task portrayed.
Other missions include a Marines training mission that demonstrates both insertion and extraction maneuvers. There is a Coast Guard segment that showcases a rescue swimmer and recreates a high-seas rescue operation. There are humanitarian missions which drop food and survival supplies behind war zones. Logs are cleared from remote forests by a hook that looks and works much like those arcade hooks that aren’t really strong enough to grab a prize. But these hooks are strong enough to carry giant trees that weigh tons. Wildlife experts in South Africa run down a black rhino to relocate. The feds race down a speeding boat of drug runners.
You get the typical IMAX ride-along feel here. There’s plenty of panoramic views to carry the viewer along. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well on your television screen as it must on the giant screen of your local IMAX theater. I can see how the swooping helicopter scenes might take you along for the ride. It just doesn’t work so much in my home theater.
Straight Up is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. This is obviously an older IMAX effort, and the age of the print is too evident throughout. It’s not the kind of film that can pay for a huge restoration, so we should be happy with what we have here. The high-definition image presentation is certainly full of sharpness and detail, but the image also appears soft and washed out at times. Technology has improved a ton in the 10 years since this one was filmed, and it shows here.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track delivers surprisingly dynamic sound. You would expect to be satisfied with merely a clear narration. But when you go up on these birds you get the full treatment. The wind whips about you and the sounds of the craft itself are often deafening in real life. You get a sense of that here with a solid sub response and great use of the surrounds.
There is an informative Audio Commentary on the disc featuring Director David Douglas. He knows his choppers, and you’ll learn much more about the craft themselves by listening in.
Taking Off – Behind The Scenes: (22:12) The picture here is a bit of a disappointment. There is behind-the-scenes footage, and several members of the crew talk about the shoot.
Careers In Action: (17:26) Several real-life folks talk about how they got into their careers. There’s a lot of the “stay in school and work hard” message to most of these stories.
This is a nice little release that really will only appeal to those interested in helicopters. It’ll be a fun ride for a while, but I doubt it will be the kind of thing you’ll watch over and over again. The people are interesting, and their jobs are often fascinating. It’s a tough balancing act to hover between finding an educational slant and still being entertaining. I have to give them credit for likely doing about as good as you can. “Odds being what they are and wind being what it is, it isn’t always that easy.”