From the first liberating flights of humans in gas-bag balloons to the fabulous perspectives of Earth as seen from the space shuttle, the IMAX Theatre at the Maryland Science Center has put together a terrific new weekend double feature.
The "After Hours at IMAX" program that opened last night, with 7:30 p.m. showings on Fridays and Saturdays through mid-November, brings back "To Fly" and "Blue Planet."
The ethereal "To Fly," last seen in Baltimore in 1987, seems as enchanting today as when it debuted in 1976 as the premiere film of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The film has been seen there by an estimated 50 million people.
One of the earliest films to use the huge-screen IMAX system, it vicariously takes viewers on some equilibrium-challenging flights.
We float above Vermont in the opening balloon sequence, go barnstorming with an old Stearman biplane, participate in almost-in-the-cockpit maneuvers with the Navy's Blue Angels and share a soaring aerial ballet with a lone hang-glider pilot in Hawaii.
"It was like the opening of a new eye," says the narrator of the first aerial perspectives, and the comment could apply equally to the IMAX format that seems to put viewers inside the movie.
A recent re-viewing also revealed some clever, fond references to earlier moments in film history.
For instance, a steam locomotive charges toward the camera, just like in the early silent "The Great Train Robbery." The ballooning evokes "Around the World in 80 Days" and the barnstorming scenes bring back "North By Northwest," as the plane zooms over fields that could be the very ones Cary Grant ran through under attack by a crop duster.
The almost-there intimacy of IMAX also highlights "Blue Planet," which was seen at the Science Center in 1990-1991. But the perspective is higher -- much, much higher.
Shot by astronauts aboard five space shuttle missions in the late 1980s, the film offers an environmentally sensitive view of "an entirely new planet . . . a sometimes turbulent planet," our own puny Earth.
We see earthquake faults, volcanic activity, hurricanes and even ordinary thunderstorms from the humbling platform of space.
And, in its strongest sequences, the film also documents some violence being done by our human occupants.
We see pesticides leaching into the Gulf of Mexico, pollution fouling the Chang Jiang River in China, chemical-rich sediment choking the Betsiboka delta in Madagascar and thick smoke spreading across the ocean from the burning of the Amazon rain forests.
"Blue Planet" brings to mind a line near the end of "To Fly," where the hyperbolic narrator intones that from space, "Earth is no bigger than a tear."
What: "To Fly" and "Blue Planet"
Where: Maryland Science Center, "After Hours at IMAX"
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Cost: $5 through May 29; $6 thereafter