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'Fighter Pilot': Hang On to Your Popcorn

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page C01

Aunt Shirley is going to hate it.

Cousin Todd is going to love it.

Grandma just might pass out during it.

The camera angles used in the midair refueling of a jet fighter make it one of many sequences in "Fighter Pilot" that are not for the faint of stomach. (K2 Communications)

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"Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag," the big, loud, state-of-the-art Imax movie debuting this weekend at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, is the rare family-time activity that is educational, enlightening and just might make the whole brood barf.

The true story of a cocky flyboy who competes in a combat-training program, it is Imax movie as world's largest video game. With unrivaled access to military procedure and camera angles that are both jaw- and stomach-dropping, the movie is a need-for-speed seduction that will delight both PlayStation jockeys and those Tom Cruise wannabes with "Top Gun" forever in their DVD players.

Fast, slick, and full of fancy 'splosions, it's also the largest, most manipulative military recruiting ad you've ever seen -- Boeing is the main sponsor, the Air Force its main star. You fully expect to find Donald Rumsfeld waiting outside the theater to sign you up.

Regardless, "Fighter Pilot" is a major attraction for the Udvar-Hazy Center, which today is celebrating its one-year anniversary. The museum -- the only place in the Washington area where the movie will be shown -- drew about 1.8 million tourists in its inaugural year. One of the museum's main goals has been to get aviation nuts to visit both the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall and its Virginia counterpart.

Sure, the Udvar-Hazy Center has more than 100 aircraft on display in its modified hangar, including the Enola Gay and the space shuttle Enterprise. But it still needed something to, you know, make you dizzy.

Two years ago, to the delight of roller-coaster devotees everywhere, the Air and Space Museum brought in 15 MaxFlight simulators, truly fiendish amusements that look like giant silver Blow Pops and cost $6.50 a spin. And I do mean spin. They feature "forward-of-axis" technology, which allows you, enclosed in a high-tech cockpit, to work the controls and turn 360 degrees -- sideways, backward, you name it -- while a 58-inch virtual-reality screen provides visuals. I spent three minutes upside-down. I almost fainted. It was awesome.

At Udvar-Hazy, however, the simulators are rickety Astrovan-looking things you usually find at cruddy arcades. You just sit there -- with a bunch of other people -- crammed into a small space as a smaller screen shows grainy footage of a fuzzy plane. The machine gently bumps and jerks, totally out of rhythm with what you're watching. Lame.

But now there's "Fighter Pilot."

You can forget about all those old-school Imax tricks here, ho-hum panoramas like that field-trip snoozefest "To Fly!": hot-air balloons floating over purple mountains majesty, blizzardy mountain ranges, buffalo pounding across the open plains. You know, the yawny stuff of sore-feet outings with the in-laws. (Admit it: You always take the relatives to the Imax. It's easier that way, isn't it?)

Five minutes into "Fighter Pilot" -- which costs $8 for adults, $6.50 for kids and seniors -- your stomach will be doing the rumba when an F-15 Eagle zooms straight up into the sky (the land beneath going, going, gone) and then . . . starts . . . spinning.

Full disclosure: I actually said, "Wheee!"

Written and directed by Imax vet Stephen Low, the 40-minute film follows Capt. John Stratton -- the grandson of a World War II flying ace -- as he heads to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to take part in Operation Red Flag, a combat-readiness program for the United States and allies such as Germany, England, Italy and Canada. Red Flag is the final training preparation for pilots and ground crews before they are sent into actual combat.

The squadrons are briefed on the day's mission, there are mock unnamed "bad guys" lurking in the skies and soon enough --


-- and Stratton's F-15 Eagle is zooming around with attack planes, fighter planes, bomber planes, F-16s, A-1os, B-52s, oh my! Although no one's getting killed at Red Flag -- this is only a test, and the planes fire flares instead of rockets -- it's all taken very seriously, as well it should be. "My grandfather said that going to war is worse than I could possibly imagine," says Stratton. "And now I agree with him."

Okay, good point, but let's be honest: There's a reason "Fighter Pilot" is an Imax movie and not some sobering PBS documentary, and that's because pitching and rolling in a jet and the "chaos" of simulated battle between monstrous instruments of war looks spectacular on a screen that's six stories high and, according to a museum spokesman, "the width of a wingspan of the Concorde -- 82 feet, 10 inches."

The movie's most chilling moment happens not in the air but on the ground: a tank's-eye view of an oncoming onslaught of planes, each one dropping very real bombs. The planes fly closer, the explosions get closer -- and those Imax speakers get LOUDER -- until finally the tank and the camera (and you) are engulfed in roaring flames. (On second thought, the movie is a great recruiter for the Air Force but maybe not so much for the Army.)

For queasy folks, a scene of soldiers parachuting out of the rear of a cargo plane -- oh, and a sequence of Stratton zipping through mountains -- is high on the puke meter, and a subtly unnerving scene involving a midair refueling is gonna be a killer for anyone afraid of heights.

Like Aunt Shirley.

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