“What in Tarnation is a Helicopter Doing Here?”

 “What in Tarnation is a Helicopter Doing Here?”

This aircraft has all the aerodynamics of John Goodman, but manages to fly in spite of itself. Or is it just photoshopped? – the helicopter and not John Goodman

How Movies Signify Urgency

Y’ever (yes, y’ever is a word – it’s a contraction of “did you ever”). OK. Let’s start again shall we? J’ever, I mean, y’ever notice this dramatic plot device in movies? The template for this dramatic device operates thusly: In the middle of a rather sedate scene, off in the distance, you hear the whooping gyrations of a helicopter’s rotor blades. Soon this feathery whoosh becomes progressively more insistent as the clamorous decibel level combined with the helicopter’s formidable appearance eclipses whatever trifling activity was happening in the scene. All are transfixed upon the chopper’s thunderous arrival. And all is transformed when the whirlybird drops down from on high and rudely inserts itself into the middle of a fancy lawn party or some such other incongruous venue. We moviegoers wonder – “What in tarnation is a helicopter doing here?”


Depending on the movie’s storyline, sometimes the helicopter lands athwart the path of our soon-to-be hero while he’s jogging on a lonely beach (wow, they must really need him, we think). The incongruity of the helicopter in a decidedly un-helicopter-like setting renders the scene all the more critical and signifies a moment fraught with urgency as it foreshadows something pivotal about to take place. The yakking rotor blades herald the significance of this pivotal moment, and wily directors employ this aural technique to segue us into a scene of mounting anticipation, replete with surges of excitement and a heightened level of arousal. In real life you see this dynamic with enthusiastic lovers who try to generate similar feelings, but without a script and definitely without the rotor blades.     


In each movie the scene plays out a little differently. The good guy or gal (hey, why don’t I just call them the protagonist) is awakened rudely in the middle of the night by the vacuous flutter of counter-rotating helicopter blades. In these movies our protagonist is either a retired elite Navy Seal counterterrorist type or a brilliant professor (is there any other kind?) who holds unique knowledge in some esoteric field like electro-magnetic warfare or translating runic glyphs. As the helicopter comes into view, a crescendo of thunderous clucking fills the theater’s Surround Sound with enough vibratory alarm to wake the dead – or in this case to wake our protagonist from deep REM sleep. Who wouldn’t straighten up and fly right upon awakening to the other worldly roar of rotor blades slicing through the air with the ominous chop of 10,000 guillotines blades being released in deadly syncopation? OK Mr. Director, you’ve got my attention. Now what?


At this point I think I’ve employed enough descriptive adjectives (are there any other kind?) to make my case that helicopters in movies signify change – urgent and immediate change.             


The scene continues: And it’s not just any old helicopter that juxtaposes itself into some inappropriately cool location where a helicopter is generally helicopter non grata. Nope. It’s usually one of those double rotor blade, bad ass military type helicopters – a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. This flying casserole dish has all the aerodynamics of a vintner’s smudge pot and looks like something you would design if you were given $1 million to build an aircraft that absolutely, positively couldn’t fly.  


With the startling and self-important arrival of the CH-47 everything is thrown into disarray. Order is restored however, upon the commanding appearance of a jut-jawed Colonel (is there any other kind?). He alights from the chopper and strides authoritatively over to our protagonist with the unsmiling purposefulness of a lion stalking its prey. Referencing the helicopter, the laconic colonel (let’s just call him Colonel Hardcheese) orders our protagonist in no uncertain terms to, “Get in. Uncle Sam needs you.” The syntax begins to break down here, for it is difficult to determine if our protagonist has been ordered aboard the helicopter in no uncertain terms or in terms that are very certain – that’s not really important, but I like to keep my grammar tidy even if it may be sullied by double negatives. In any event, the moviegoer must decide this for themselves. And with Colonel Hardcheese’s peremptory order, the bewildered but composed specialist boards the helicopter and is whisked away to some far away crucible of conflict.


Now preceding this cinematic handiwork, there’s already been an abrupt and terse exchange between Colonel Hardcheese and our protagonist. In that exchange our now beloved protagonist issued dire warnings (are there any other kind?) on something foreboding about to take place. He has expressed his contempt for the military’s unilateral tendencies by admonishing Col. Hardcheese that: “You’re missing the point Hardcheese. You one-dimensional Army guys are so inept and so inert while the aliens are, are…very ept and very ert. And if you think I’m kidding just take a look at the ex-city of Baton Rouge.” He’s referencing an earlier referred to devastation of Baton Rouge, Louisiana by the aliens (or were the aliens forced to do this by the military’s boorish actions?).


The bellicose and skeptical Colonel Hardcheese dismissed these warnings as poppycock (“bullsh*t” was his exact word). But when responsible higher-ups in the government’s security apparatus realize just how spot-on our protagonist’s once ridiculed warnings were, and how indispensable his skills have become, they determined they must enlist his aid pronto and transport him posthaste to the theater of conflict. (I don’t know why I waited this long into the story to give our protagonist a name, but let’s just call him Chadwick).


After locating Chadwick (whom we know has been right all along), the authorities decide to send the aforementioned Boeing CH-47 Chinook military helicopter directly to his house. The director of the movie then activates our plot device to convey a sense of urgency. Off in the distance, we hear the telltale urgency of fluttering rotor blades as the deus ex machina aircraft lands on the impossibly spacious lawn Chadwick just happens to have handy in his backyard. As if on cue the moviegoer thinks – What in tarnation is a helicopter doing here. We soon see our hero awake groggily from bed. A light, powerful enough to cut tungsten, penetrates his Hunter-Douglas blackout blinds and washes his bedroom in a tsunami of harsh, ozone-depleted light. Colonel Hardcheese then strides in authoritatively and bellows above the din of the helicopter rotors, “Get in. Uncle Sam needs you.” And he bellows this order in no uncertain terms.


The dialogue proceeds something like this:

Chadwick: What are you doing here? You laughed at me when I warned you about {yada, yada, yada – make up your own plot point}. And now you expect me to just go with you.


Colonel Hardcheese: Yes, well the President thinks this is no laughing matter now. We’ve got to get you to Barksdale Air Force Base sir so you can save the planet.


Chadwick (now supremely sober after sensing the peril of the situation): I can be ready in 20 minutes.


Colonel Hardcheese: That’s fine. We leave in 10.


On board the helicopter we can’t quite make out the dialogue over the whooping gyrations of the rotor blades. This sets the tone for the thinnest foray into humor. The professor is trying to say something, but he’s drowned out. The Colonel then points to a helmet with a little boom mic attached to it so he can talk into it. “Put it on,” Colonel Hardcheese barks.

As the rotor noise recedes Chadwick dons the helmet and says:


Chadwick: Tell me something colonel. Is there going to be drink service onboard?


Colonel Hardcheese: Sir. There’s a fully operational hydration station at Barksdale AFB.


Chadwick: Barksdale AFB! That’s 2200 miles away from Seattle. We’re not taking a helicopter for 2200 miles are we? Who wrote this?


Colonel Hardcheese: Sir, I just say what’s in the script. I hit my mark and say my lines. Y’know, Army training, mission objectives and all that “don’t question authority” stuff has taught me as much.


Chadwick: This makes no sense at all. We’re taking a helicopter all the way to Louisiana. That’ll take like 25 hours and we’ll need aerial refueling and I don’t think these flying bread boxes can even refuel while airborne. Well anyway that’s a helluva logic flaw in the plot. Did it ever come up at the writers’ meeting that perhaps you could just helicopter me to SeaTac airport, where we could jet to Barksdale in a spiffy new G-6?


Colonel Hardcheese: No can do sir. We’re almost in post-production now and rewrites are out of the question. We’re already over budget as it is. Do you have any idea how expensive these helicopter scenes are? I wouldn’t worry though sir. In the next scene we’re in Bayou Country pursuing the extra-terrestrials you warned us about, but, regrettably, we didn’t heed your advice. So now we’re about to become a perfect storm: we brash military types who believe the aliens bear us malice, colliding with your more sanguine beliefs in their beneficence. There’s great dramatic tension over their intentions. I’ve read ahead in the script and I think you’ll find you acquit yourself with great distinction in the next few scenes. I’ll just come flat out and say it sir – Oscar buzz. The best buzz there is for an actor?


Colonel Hardcheese continues: The issue is, will you convince us in time of the aliens’ munificent intentions before we attack them with bullets and they casually lay waste to the entire planet with their doomsday Ion Obliterater? Now that’s dramatic tension. You know how we Army men love to follow orders and shoot at the bad guys? Let me rephrase that: “You know how we Army men love to deploy effective countervailing ordnance against a fierce and motivated adversary?” I wonder, will your intuitive hunches and sentimental attempts at humanistic outreach be enough to prevent me from throwing hand grenades at the aliens, even though I know they can destroy us in the blink of an eye?


Cut to the next scene where we see that travel weary Chadwick has arrived at Barksdale AFB and is now strategizing inside some kind of military command and control center, filled with actors bustling about pretending it’s some kind of military command and control center.


Colonel Hardcheese: You’ll be getting an iconoclastic ally now sir. The distinguished Dr. Hiram Offkilter (played by who else? – Jeff Goldblum) will be here just as soon as his bus arrives from Yuma and the two of you will devise an ‘out of this world’ solution to reconcile with our out of this world aliens.


Chadwick: Wait. Dr. Offkilter is taking a bus? That’s enough. I want out of this movie. Now! And stop calling me sir. In case you haven’t noticed I’m transgendered. I’m not really transgendered, I’m just written that way. Jesus Christ –who approved this script? What a mess. Wait till my agent hears about this. I’ve got to get out of this movie.


As if on cue, off in the distance, we hear the telltale urgency of fluttering rotor blades heralding a pivotal moment. Colonel Hardcheese’s adjutant, Sergeant Hemingway sidles up to Chadwick as their windblown hair is tossed straight back against the onrushing rotor wash.


Chadwick: Not this again. How many times is the director going to use this device?


Sergeant Hemingway: You should feel lucky Chadwick. Do not ask for whom the helicopter blades flutter. For they flutter for thee.


Chadwick: Really? It’s coming for me Hemingway? Are you being Ernest?


Sergeant Hemingway: Yes and no. I’m not Ernest, but I am earnest.

Comments are closed.