IMAX: it's big but is it better?

We live in an age where cinemas are rarely individual spaces. What is common is the cinema as an addition to the already choking mall; that way you can dine, shop and view in one overcast afternoon. A now frequent sight in the suburbs, these cinemas reduce all art for the sake of commerce. The wormhole corridors are stuffed with arcade games, cardboard stands advertising the film you simply must see next and the now dangerously aggravated customer. They are assaulted, overcharged then shepherded into the penny-pinching box of a cinema to watch a film that, relatively speaking, is glorified television. It is the debasement of the spectacle. For every "SENSTADIUM"tm screening of the new piece of overhyped garbage, there are five screenings of contemptible mediocrity. Sometimes you just want to go where somebody knows your name. IMAX anyone?

Below: stills from the world's biggest educational spectacle: Cosmic Voyage
From the outside it's quite impressive, a wall of shiny glass and steel scaling higher and higher suggesting that the claim "The World's Biggest Screen" could well be true. The lobby is modest enough: display screens, a small cafe, a gift shop. What swallows the space are flights of steps leading you away, but to where? These steps could lead anywhere they damn well pleased. All this is quite impressive, but when you finally crack the expensive shell, further delights await within. The theatre is shaped like a colloseum, a steep rate of decline suggesting caged lions; this is initially misleading. The screen faces you head on, face to face with beery breath and a dancecard marked "designated fighter". As you ease into your comfy chair, wondering what the film will be like, your attention is distracted by the sustained martinet performance of the security guards. With deft control the walkie-talkie's pass along report upon report, keeping the peace and making sure you enjoy yourself. With these dull moments I dream of being dragged into a small steel room, a 200-seater, and being asked "What don't you smile? Everyone else does!" They beat me with phonebooks and dump me outside the Chauvel. I scream to the heavens as the 16mm projector wheezes back into consciousness.

The first film I saw was called The Magic Of Flight, a documentary about the beauty of all things aviatic. It was narrated by Tom Selleck, which gave the enterprise a decidely desperate air, the need to find a celebrity who doesn't need a personal physician and a trailer the size of Alcatraz for a voice-over spot. The film treated the seasoned pioneers of flight with deserved reverence, but from the start we were waiting for those modern angels of speed to give us our $12.50 worth of neurasthenia. For those who arrived late: The birds flew, then the Wright Brothers flew and now daft Navy pilots fly gratuitously-priced stunt jets for the amusement of bloated hicks with 15oz. beer cups and "WKNQ 123.8 ROCKS MY TOWN" baseball caps. Considering the film is an inspirational attempt to "inspire thought and realise dreams", it's a bit deflatory to have slack-jawed yokels as the benefactors of all these innovations. Keeping this is mind, the pilots aren't much better. Any man who utters "At the end of the day, it's the smile on the kids faces that makes it all worthwhile" should not even be allowed near a stunt jet. One day he's executing perfect negative rolls with zero-g and the next he's writing his name in the sky and screaming "Beam me up Osama, I'm melting". All I want now is Hunter S. Thompson covering my ass with a can of mace (a subject for an IMAX film if ever there was one) and a "Kiss the Cook" apron tucked in tight. This Roger Ramjet is ready for Blast Off.

The other film I saw before I was politely ejected from the cinema was Cosmic Voyage, a spectacular romp through the universe from Big Bang to beyond. Instead of the privileged views offered by Magic of Flight (ie. planes you'll never fly, TV stars you'll never hear from again) this film offers us the impossible view of outer space, with a little help from special effects. In fact the whole film is a special effects exercise, the lads in the computer room making things go BOOM on a larger, IMAX scale. While we gasp at the funky majesty of space (get down, get back on up...) there isn't the spectacular, you-are-there-but-not-really thrill of Magic of Flight. Cosmic Voyage is merely a glorified version of Armageddon or Deep Impact, effects without the affect, which is why the producers got wise and hired the king of the cool, calm voiceover: Morgan Freeman. The sugar in my tooth, the champagne in my shoe. Say in that deep slow voice: Ernest Hemingway once said "The world is a fine place, and worth saving. I agree with the second part...(roll credits). With Morgan by your side, the rings of Saturn and all the amoeba a Big Gulp can hold are only a thunderous bass note away. When your exorbitant admission fee begins to feel misspent, cling tight to that voice born for supporting roles and occasional attention by Hollywood. Groovy.

Below: Even the cameras are bigger than big.
As is indicated by the increasingly silly manner in which this school report is progressing, it's hard to take IMAX seriously. Stunning technology was born for more than glorified television documentaries and filmed concerts, and regardless of the undebatable size of the screen which assails your eye, your brain still functions on a TV level. You take note of the facts, get told who to admire and are pushed along gently yet firmly by the invisible voice. If IMAX insists on giving stunning images a vocal wheelchair, at least get someone like David Letterman, Mike Tyson or James Brown to join the IMAX family. That way the voiceover can become a spectacle all in itself. Regardless of gimmicks, what these films need are real filmmakers. Imagine what Brian De Palma, David Lynch and yes, John Woo could do with this format. Then cast your mind back earlier. Griffith, Eisenstein, Dziga-Vertov, von Sternberg, Peckingpah. IMAX offers the possibility for pure aesthetics, pare sensation. For the time being we need to forget about education and justification and enjoy the pretty pictures. Like four tired Capital letters stretched across a gulf of minute type, just like all the rest. IMAX...

adam rivett
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