Superman, we need you!
The BFI London IMAX is an ever-present background entity to all those who leave Waterloo Station and descend the steps into the city. Since its erection in 1999, the structure has achieved a slightly uneasy integration with the urban architecture fanning from London’s South Bank. The £20 million building attempts a statement of modernity, and always proclaims its latest cinematic offering with outward-facing banners that rival the format itself for sheer enormity. As the exotic alternative to traditional cinematic spectacle, the IMAX sales pitch tends to begin with the venue.
There are about 150 IMAX theatres across the United States, and the London IMAX is one of nearly 150 more worldwide. All boast screens nearly twenty metres high. Films shot specifically for the IMAX experience are typically documentaries exploring far-flung corners of the world. They exploit the enormous format (ten times the size of a 35mm frame) to capture such magnificent natural vistas as the Grand Canyon, the African savannah, and the peaks of Everest. Loose documentary narratives usually guide the viewer in the form of voiceover, but relentlessly stunning visuals are of course the star. Accompanying the documentaries on the schedules are normally CGI compilation films which, although rarely less than stunning on a visual level, are really little more than special-effects show-reels.
An inevitable result of this new technology is that the format opens itself up to the same criticism routinely leveled at mainstream Hollywood; the “wow” factor induced by cinematic spectacle is prioritised over good storytelling. The difference with IMAX is that the technology is specifically designed to showcase that new breed of spectacle, to the extent that many shows even begin with a short demonstration of the theatre’s audio technology. Whereas traditional cinema has, in many cases, evolved into serious art, and only tends to command critical respect when filmmakers offer involving stories and characters, IMAX is generally accepted as being little more than a theme-park attraction. The reality is that, with the limited range of purpose-shot films on offer, it is yet to prove itself capable of much else. In this way, there are certain similarities with the birth of cinema itself. From the first public exhibitions of the 1890s, and beyond, the appeal of early cinema was primarily the visual spectacle. Whether a train arriving at a station or workers leaving a factory, the lure was in the fact that these actions had been caught on film in the first place. It could well be that the IMAX format simply needs time to evolve, to become as established an art form as its 35mm older cousin.
More straightforward, however, is the argument that IMAX represents the next cinematic step in audience participation. With cutting-edge surround-sound, and a screen enveloping the viewer’s field of vision, the line between the audience’s status as viewer or participant becomes blurred. We find ourselves gently leaning as the camera swoops through the Grand Canyon, or mysteriously pinned to the back of the seat as we plunge into the depths of a volcano on a computer-generated roller-coaster. Add to this the now-routine 3D element of many shows, and the film envelops us to the extent that we can truly lose ourselves in the experience. That can’t often be said in quite the same way of traditional cinema.
However, despite the abundance of technological hooks, the IMAX format seems to be relegated to the fringes of the entertainment world; the theme park ride struggling to find its fan base. An often stagnant schedule, combined with premium admission-rates for films that rarely run longer than forty-five minutes, are no doubt contributing factors. Over recent years, however, a certain format-crossover has begun to take place. A mix of classic and commercial films, such as The Matrix sequels, Apocalypse Now, Superman Returns, and most recently Zack Snyder’s Spartan-spectacular 300, have all taken advantage of digital technology to find themselves enjoying releases in the IMAX format, whilst IMAX venues are also increasingly used for standard 35mm presentations. Similarly, though, digital 3D technology is beginning to find its way to the traditional multiplexes. Recent releases such as Monster House, Tim Burton’s classic The Nightmare Before Christmas and Meet the Robinsons, have all been available in digital 3D outside the IMAX.
If current trends persist, it could be that “bigger” is the only real hook that the IMAX format has to offer audiences. Perhaps that will be enough to sustain it as a more exotic alternative to the 35mm and, increasingly, digital multiplex. This, however, seems unlikely. It may be more reasonable to predict a similar evolution to that demonstrated by its 35mm cousin over the past century, assuming the public’s theme-park enthusiasm remains. Without it, the IMAX will likely end up permanently relegated to the status of cinematic oddity.