Like other big-screen Imax “experiences,” the newest effort “Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag” will be greeted by waves of cheering adulation by every member of the Air Force and the thousands of employees at Boeing, two members of the military industrial complex that want the rest of the audience to either enlist or buy stock after exiting this hearty, yet dramatically flat 45-minute jingoist propaganda piece. Aviation buffs will flock in droves. Cinematically, it’s a mere snippet of entertainment, enlightening in the oversized format, but underwhelming as a thrill ride.
It opened on December 11, 2004 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the Chantilly, Northern Virginia outpost of the Washington DC Air & Space Museum, a primary tourist stop in this neck of the world. Adjacent to Dulles Airport and about a half-hour from its downtown parent (depending on weather and traffic conditions), the Center, which just celebrated its first anniversary, is a series of large aircraft hangars gloriously housing a Concorde, the Space Shuttle “Enterprise,” and many must-see, historically significant aircraft and associated devices, including the B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay.” The price for museum admission is free (but parking is $12 per vehicle); each IMAX screening runs you $8 a ticket (youth/senior/combo discounts are available)—”Fighter Pilot” is one of three films that rotate daily within the large format theatre at Udvar-Hazy. It’s also unreeling at seven other locations across the nation, with 38 more auditoriums having booked it to play sometime over the next two years. Check at the film’s website, www.fighterpilotfilm.com, to find out how close it is to you, in miles and months.
So, settling into a very comfortable seat, waiting for the 7,000-watt xenon bulb to illuminate the 6-story-high screen, you’re asked to turn off your cell phone. I’m not sure if you’d hear the ringer anyway when the mini-feature, directed by large format veteran Stephen Low, who also produced with Pietro Serapiglia, begins to blast through the 44-speaker system.
The story—if you must say there is one—merely acts as a framing mechanism to display the aerial challenges of Red Flag, the international training exercise where hundreds of pilots and their associated crews show off their combat know-how in a series of war maneuvers. Captain John “Otter’ Stratton is the “star,” proudly following in the heroic shadow of the distinguished career of his grandfather, a WWII fighter pilot whose newspaper clippings and wall photos attest to his memory. But the film only dwells on past accomplishments briefly, shifting out of neutral and straight into fifth gear as you lift off into the brilliant blue skies, taken airborne for a pretty travelogue of snow-capped mountains and verdant green mesas. You, as the IMAX camera wants you to believe, are Stratton’s copilot in his F-15 Eagle, 1,500 of which have been produced by Boeing over the last three decades. Thus you share the huge primary product placement. It’s one piece of expensive hardware. The 128 aircraft that share the big screen are the real stars, gathering in Nevada for 14 days of Olympic-size simulated warfare, with groups of the world’s best pilots, from Germany, Italy, Canada, Britain, and other Allied nations.
“Fighter Pilot” progresses through an escalating series of aerial drills involving billions of dollars in weaponry. You’re just as much a participant as any of the pilots, whether walking the runway every morning to remove any pebbles that might get sucked into the plane engines and ruin a promising career, or flying low above the desert dirt and rocks. There are plenty of mock gunfire and hot explosions that will undoubtedly elicit yahoos from some top gun video game enthusiasts. It’s a fine military recruitment film. Don’t go expecting much in dramatic value.