Film Review: Living in the Age of Airplanes

The many ways airplanes impact our lives make a visually stunning but oddly one-sided large-format documentary.
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Several years in the making, Living in the Age of Airplanes is a paean to aviation, following airplanes as they circle the globe and providing uncritical commentary about their importance. Ideal as a promotional item at a trade convention, the movie pales next to its more nature-oriented large-format competition.

Split into five parts, Airplanes tosses out a few factoids about pre-manned-flight life and points out that earlier generations rarely ventured farther than a 20-mile radius. The wheel, the steam engine and other inventions helped shrink the world and speed up travel.

Airplanes skips past the Wright brothers and other aviation pioneers, but somehow manages to include the 1936 Olympics and a United Nations General Assembly during its "passing time" montages. That's how the script—co-written by director Brian J. Terwilliger and Jessica Grogan—operates, bouncing from subject to subject without offering much insight, and completely avoiding difficult topics like climate change, noise pollution, and an industry increasingly dominated by a few giant players.

Harrison Ford delivers a fulsome voiceover that's heavy on phrases like "portal to the planet" and "doorway to the world." James Horner adds an overpowering score that could just as easily be selling a luxury SUV.

There's no denying the majesty of the images captured by cinematographer Andrew Waruszewski. As Ford points out, the views provided by airplanes are perhaps their greatest source of awe. Airplanes includes startling vistas from every continent, as well as familiar travelogue landscapes that will be enhanced by large-format screens. Some shots show dozens of aircraft circling over airports like fireflies—or maybe viruses waiting to attack.

Airplanes makes many claims for the aviation industry while refusing to acknowledge any of its drawbacks. One long sequence is devoted to transporting cut roses from Kenya to Amsterdam and then to international markets, an exercise in capitalism that uses underpaid labor and massive amounts of petrochemicals so a consumer in Anchorage can have fresh flowers.

Living in the Age of Airplanes presents a world in which "remote" no longer has meaning, as camera-toting tourists swarm over tropical islands and frozen wastelands before waiting in security lines to board flights home. In Terwilliger's approach, airplanes don't just shrink the planet, they erase the very things that define us, turning everyone into the same homogenized souvenir shopper. Fittingly, the movie ends with a montage of planes terrorizing wildlife and despoiling scenery around the world, all for the benefit of aviation junkies and students trapped on school trips.

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