"ON THE WING," the new Imax film at the National Air and Space Museum, may be a sign that the giant-screen movie industry is growing up.

The half-hour film has all the gorgeous spectacle and dramatic perspectives of the earlier efforts, but it goes far beyond their stunt-film limitations. "On the Wing" is a movie: It has a real theme, and uses images of things to develop ideas.

Instead of offering up the usual stomach-churning pastiche of swooping-and-looping sequences, the makers have used the power of the large-screen format to examine the animal art and human science of flight. The difference between "On the Wing" and earlier Imaxes is the difference between flying and being flown.

From the arresting opening scenes, in which we ride on the back of a dragonfly, through the triumph of Paul MacCready's "Qn," the flying replica of the pterodactyl Quetzalcoatlus northropi, the film takes us on a journey that engages the mind as well as the eye. And you haven't lived till you've flown with a 20-foot cicada, 30-foot flamingos and six-foot bats.

The thing that stays with you after you come away is the realization that, after eight decades of brute-force solutions to the problem of flight, fully 15 years after we rode a roman candle to the moon, man has begun to learn how to fly. -- Hank Burchard ON THE WING -- At the National Air and Space Museum, five showings a day on weekends starting at 9:25 a.m.; four showings weekdays starting at 10:05. Admission $2 adults, $1 students, children, seniors.