My first glimpse of Winged Migration came when I caught the trailer before Spellbound. I was immediately transfixed by the images I saw, such that once the trailer was over, I turned to my friend and told him that I needed to see that movie. I watched the trailer a few more times on my computer, and even on the small screen, the sights still had me floored. Of course, 90 minutes of birds flapping their wings doesn’t exactly sound like it makes for good cinema. It’s a safe bet to say that most people would find it far too mundane a topic (one of my co-workers, upon seeing the trailer, immediately remarked that it was the sort of thing her husband would hate). But therein lies much of Winged Migration’s power.
Here in Nebraska, it’s a very common thing to see ducks and geese heading north in the spring and south in the fall, such that you rarely give such sights a second notice. For example, my high school biology class went to see the sandhill cranes make their yearly stop in North Platte. Not surprisingly, it was a less than thrilling trip. So I’ve seen tens of thousands of birds in my life. But I’ve never seen them like this.
At the very beginning of the film, the filmmakers put a disclaimer that no special effects were used in any of the shots of the birds. That statement should prove a very humbling one for filmmakers who believe that every film needs a multi-million dollar effects budget. Nature is still the greatest special effect of all, and I found myself dazzled by many of the film’s shots, and more often than not, completely baffled as to how they were achieved.
Using a multitude of means, the filmmakers often get within inches of their subjects in flight, revealing a world of detail. We see the way the bird’s bodies move as they flap their wings, the way they hang suspended on the updrafts, the ways their feathers ripple in the breeze. I was reminded once again that, even with all of his technology, Man is nowhere close to achieving Nature’s beauty and perfection.
In the film’s most surreally beautiful scenes, seabirds hang motionless on the ocean breeze, and then, with a twist of their neck, turn into living harpoons as they plunge into the water for food. Swarms of birds duck and dive through the air, turning in the blink of an eye en masse with a speed and agility that fighter pilots can only dream of. Even the goofiest birds, such as the pelican, are more graceful in flight than the most advanced jet we’ve ever developed.
In the midst of these awesome spectacles, Mankind makes an occasional appearance. However, our species is rarely cast in a positive light. Don’t worry, though; Winged Migration is no “tree hugger” film. There are no blatant or simplistic “Man bad, Nature good” statements made here. Still, it’s hard not to feel some sadness when you see ducks that have travelled hundreds of miles get shot out of the sky by hunters, their bodies crumpling as they tumble to earth. It’s hard not to feel some anger when a flock flies through the smoke belching out of a factory and one of their number is unable to free itself from a puddle of sludge. And watching farm geese with clipped wings call out to their wild cousins flying overhead is one of the film’s more poignant moments.
While much of Winged Migration focuses on the grandeur and majesty of Nature, her harsh and cruel side is also on display. In fact, one of the film’s first scenes depicts a new hatchling, still blind and featherless, pushing its siblings’ eggs out of the nest; even at birth, death is ever-present. The journey these birds undertake is fraught with peril, and many do not survive, falling prey to exhaustion, the elements, and predators. In the film’s most disturbing segment, a bird with a broken wing tries to fend off a swarm of crabs. Its one good wing flapping futilely, it limps down the beach while the crabs slowly close in for the inevitable kill. I still get the heebie-jeebies when I think about it.
But such dark scenes still have a part in the bigger picture of survival. But it’s a pcture that too many of us, especially those of us in the Western world with our cities and technology, have become blind to. Nature is no longer something that fascinates, amazes, and inspires. At best, it’s a resource that we use to produce goods to make our lives better. At worst, it’s a nuisance that must be controlled so it doesn’t upset the status quo.
But how many of us consider the wonder of the tiny Arctic Tern, who travels nearly 13,000 miles, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, not once but twice a year? Or the magic in migrating birds using the Earth’s magnetic field, a force to which we humans are completely blind, to navigate with unerring accuracy. And they’ve been doing it for countless millennia, and will continue to do so, oblivious of what transpires amongst humanity. I couldn’t help but be humbled by that thought as I watched a flock of ducks fly through New York and pass by the still-standing Twin Towers. While I certainly do not wish to make light of the tragedy that took place there, watching that scene did give me a new perspective on it.
Annie Dillard once wrote that “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there… so that creation need not play to an empty house.” For 90 minutes, Winged Migration gives us a front row seat to a spectacle that has been going on, above our heads, for thousands of years, a spectacle that we’ve become far too accustomed and inured to seeing.