National Geographic’s “Living in the Age of Airplanes” begins ominously, with shots of an airplane graveyard in the Mojave Desert, setting the revolutionary transformations of world air travel against the tedium with which most people mistakenly regard the wonder of flying. Director Brian J. Terwilliger scores his points with a soaring, overblown James Horner score, narration by Harrison Ford (still recovering from his own recent piloting accident) and eye-popping travelogue imagery, as roses are shipped around the world at dizzying speeds, and badly dressed sightseers wave digital cameras. In its avoidance of all ambiguity, this giant-screen opus ultimately boils down to a rhapsodic endorsement of the tourism and shopping industries.
A timeline of transportation traces mankind’s painfully slow itinerary across the globe (starting with elephants and giraffes in Africa, and traversing waterfalls and canyons on other continents), spanning nearly 200,000 years of virtual stagnation before the all-important invention of the wheel. Andrew Waruszewski’s cinematography proves well up to giant-screen standards: His gorgeous photography of the night sky suggests that the ancients mapped the heavens before the Earth, because they could see so much more of it.
An extended sequence of black-and-white archival footage, skillfully selected from documentary and narrative sources, stresses momentum as mankind moves from plodding progress to speedier means of locomotion. We observe as travel accelerates, from the invention of the steam engine to the development of the jet engine (space travel is left unheralded). The centrality of this extended section (beautifully edited by Brad Besser) may also explain why producers didn’t bother to package the pic in 3D.
Once it returns to color and present-day concerns, however, the film lapses back into slick travelogue mode, reimagining airport gates as portals to the world. In another well-edited, somewhat fanciful section, roses picked in Kenya with a shelf life of 14 days are transported to multiple international destinations; one especially lovely bunch winds up in an Alaskan dining room some 12,000 miles away and 10 days from wilting. From there, it’s just a quick pan across the room to an examination of the objects on a nearby table, all of which hail from some equally exotic, far-flung location.
All this glorious potential, though, culminates in gaggles of garishly garbed tourists trekking though the pyramids and Angkor Wat, or gathered like sheep around the Mona Lisa. Indeed, when Terwilliger interpolates later shots showing a tawdry pileup of an ersatz Eiffel Tower, Sphinx, Statue of Liberty and Colosseum in Las Vegas, he hardly seems to differentiate between the real and the faux. He finally proposes Vegas, the convention center of the world, as the place where, presumably (and invisibly), great but unspecified strides might be made as people from all nations converge, thanks to airplanes.