A Zoom With a Spew

Magic of Flight is so real it will have you reaching for the barf bag

The Magic of Flight Omnimax Theater at the Great Lakes Science Center, 601 Erieside Ave. 216-694-2000
"Double farvel" marvel: Blue Angel Scott Anderson.
"Double farvel" marvel: Blue Angel Scott Anderson.
The trick to virtual reality isn't just making you feel like you are there, but also putting you somewhere you can't otherwise be -- but want to be. VR demonstrations of Grandma's kitchen aren't too thrilling, for example. And, honestly, following a black bear as it plods along looking for berries doesn't offer too much of a rush, either. But throw the Blue Angels -- the Navy's elite fighter pilots who awe crick-necked audiences across the country with precision aerial stunts -- and "virtual reality" into the same sentence, and suddenly all bets are off. This is the winner. It's also the subject of The Magic of Flight, the new film at the Cleveland Clinic Omnimax Theater in the Great Lakes Science Center.

Forget the cumbersome headsets and astronaut gloves of modern VR technology and imagine sitting in a comfortable chair, six stories below the top of a movie screen that fills your entire field of vision. This is exactly what the Omnimax system offers, projecting films onto a 79-foot-diameter dome that captures something computer-based VR images can't yet muster: photographic reality. Behind the scenes are a slew of other numbers -- 4,200 pounds of projector, 11,600 watts of aural power through 44 speakers, a 180-degree fish-eye lens -- that all add up to the closest Average Joe will get to flying an F/A-18 Hornet with the Blue Angels. And it's that for which Omnimax was truly made -- tearing over the earth at 1,300 miles per hour, effecting a few rolls, then pointing nose to heaven and praying the controlled spin goes well.

The Magic of Flight is the film for which anyone who has sat through Omnimax close-ups of whales has been waiting. It was shot with sensitivity to the projection format and has less to do with education and more to do with the rush. Any close-ups are taken out of the Omnimax format and displayed center-screen at an average film size, removing the dizzying effect of a person onscreen looking at both sides of your head simultaneously, and while there are history lessons about the long road to powered flight, the film is really all about the planes. And the speed. And the need for the seat in front of you to be housing one of those barf bags that doubles as directions for exiting the airplane in an emergency.

"Close your eyes, and it'll go away," the calm warning at the beginning of the film reminds you. While for most Omnimax films that works -- when you reopen your eyes, the image has changed to a panoramic view of a meadow -- with The Magic of Flight, it might not work so well. Close your eyes on the Blue Angels, and you'll only open them on Sean Tucker's "SkyDance" routine in a biplane -- from Tucker's point of view. Or on stunt pilot Patty Wagstaff, the only woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatics championship, midway through the routine that claimed her title. And what's with that guy doing a trapeze routine from the wheel-bar of an airborne biplane?

When the Canadian filmmakers perfected Omnimax in the 1970s, The Magic of Flight is the reality they clearly had in mind. Speed and motion are the only things that really make you feel like you're there; breathtaking panoramas are all well and good, but when you get down to brass tacks, it's just a big photograph from someone else's vacation scrapbook. Throw in some Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom-like shtick, and it even gets a little ... too educational, let's say.

Which is why The Magic of Flight is head and shoulders above other recent Omnimax excursions, at least for daredevils who have no hope of making it through boot camp. Everest takes the gold medal in the Sweeping Vistas category, no question, and Alaska: Spirit of the Wild wins Nature Documentary Done Big, but The Magic of Flight earns Virtual Reality Rush in a Comfy Chair, hands down.

Just remember, you can close your eyes -- but bring your own barf bag.

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