Forget Neo, the Hulk and the Terminator. If you really want an enthralling summer movie with life-and-death action and stunning special effects, the best ticket in town is not a warmed-over sequel or remake clogging multiplexes but, of all things, a documentary about the migratory patterns of birds.

Winged Migration is the latest from Jacques Perrin, once an actor best known for appearing in Costa-Gavras' classic Z who has since charted a unique career as a producer and director who enlivens nature documentaries with advanced filmmaking technologies. Seven years after his 1996 film Microcosmos, which gave viewers a startling microscopic view of the common insects living in your front yard, Perrin has again employed innovative new camera techniques to render a distinctive bird's-eye view of the world.

The film was made over four years in 40 countries, with an army of some 14 cinematographers capturing shots of inimitable beauty from frosty Antarctica to sun-drenched Africa. Even so, there is much more here than postcard imagery. Just as important as the scope of Winged Migration (maybe more) is its intimacy. Perrin and his co-directors, Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats, get their cameras so close to the birds they follow, whether it's hundreds of feet in the air or nestled in thick brush, that you'd think one of the birds had signed on as cinematographer. It's almost distracting: You become obsessed with exactly how the filmmakers made this movie.

It began before the birds were even hatched. In a cross between National Geographic and The Real World, Perrin and company actually raised several different bird species to be comfortable with a camera, even going so far as to play recorded human noise to their unhatched eggs. Then the birds were filmed from planes, hang gliders, hot-air balloons, helicopters, and radio-controlled models. The results pay off. Many of these bird species we may see every year on their way north or south, but only from a distance. This added proximity makes an enormous difference to how we perceive their struggle.

Winged Migration conveys what a truly perilous journey birds face for a great majority of their lives. We watch as red-breasted geese flee a hunter's rifle, an injured African white pelican is eaten alive by a gang of crabs, and the Clark's grebe of Oregon literally walks (or at least runs) on water--not to mention countless other species in the film. As they embark toward the north or south, the birds of Winged Migration are like soldiers headed to battle: Watching them take off, you know many will not return.

If that sounds melodramatic, so be it. Give Perrin credit for effectively conveying the inherent drama, dignity and ultimate worth of these creatures' lives.

Winged Migration does not trace the traditional narrative arc we're used to in both fiction and nonfiction movies. At the same time, there are innumerable small dramas playing out over the course of the film, forming both a micro- and macro-view of a species that is as edifying as it is poetic. In the tradition of Koyaanisqatsi, Baraka and other cinematic travelogues, Winged Migration is a breathtaking escape to another world as well as a transcendent, refreshing perspective on the world that's right in front us. Now if only these majestic, noble creatures would just stop pooping on my car.

Winged Migration

Not Rated

Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9 pm Friday-Thursday, June 27- July 10. Additional shows 12:45, 2:45 and 4:45 pm Saturday- Sunday.