"THINK BIG," the folks at IMAX Corp. keep telling us, and Star Cinema, out in Fitchburg, finally got the message. Just in time for the holidays, it opened Star Cinema IMAX, a 350-seat theater featuring a screen that's 44 feet high and 70 feet wide. No longer will those of you for whom SIZE DOES MATTER have to drive all the way to Milwaukee's Humphrey Dome IMAX Theater, although if you do you'll be rewarded with another 20 feet or so of height. Technically speaking, Star Cinema's is an IMAX MPX screen, designed specifically for multiplex theaters, where SIZE DOES MATTER but SO DOES COST. And the biggest question I had, when I checked it out recently, was whether big would be big enough.
Well, is it? Hard to say. I'd wanted to see Space Station 3D, one of those science fairs that remain IMAX's bread and butter. Outer space would seem to be a suitable subject for the world's largest film frame. And with the prospect of viewing zero-gravity in 3D, I was looking forward to being transported to another dimension. But Space Station 3D has been experiencing technical difficulties ' something about the goggles, I was told (a problem that should be solved by the time you read this, although I'd call ahead if I were you). And so I dropped in on a screening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire instead. I'd seen it when it was released in regular theaters, so I was able to focus all my thoughts on THE BIG PICTURE.
In recent years, digitally remastered Hollywood films have become, if not IMAX's bread and butter, then the jam that gets spread over the top. And maybe someday they'll replace the science and nature docs, the thrill rides like NASCAR 3D (coming soon to a theater near you). Maybe. But I was surprised how quickly I settled back into my seat while watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ' involved, yes, but not exactly transported. I'd arrived a half hour early, but it was a holiday weekend, and the Potterians were out in full force. Reluctant to grab a seat in the middle, since I intended to leave after an hour or so, I wound up in the nosebleed seats, not unlike Harry and his friends at the World Quidditch Cup.
From where I sat, I couldn't see the bottom of the screen, which was blocked by an army of heads unless I craned my neck. This isn't necessarily a problem in an IMAX theater, where the image is supposed to extend beyond your range of vision. Not being able to see the edge of the frame is what gives us a sense that there is no edge, that we're inside the movie. It was therefore something of a disappointment ' from where I was sitting, mind you ' that I could clearly see the edges of the frame at the top and on the sides. At 44 by 70 feet, Star Cinema's IMAX screen is certainly big, but it isn't exactly huge. Point Cinema's non-IMAX Ultra Screen, in comparison, is 32 feet high and 75 feet wide. And the Sony IMAX screen in Manhattan is 80 feet high, 100 feet wide.
I still haven't decided what I think about the whole IMAX phenomenon. The effect is undeniable, but is it desirable? Business-wise, the development seems driven less by the desire to fulfill cinema's destiny, although that's what we keep hearing, than by a desire to surpass the movie palaces people now have in their homes ' the bigger and bigger screens, the better and better sound, cheap popcorn. The last time movie screens got bigger, back in the '50s, they were competing with black-and-white televisions. Now they're competing with HDTVs, DVDs, CDs, TiVo, Xboxes ' the whole alphabet soup of contemporary home-alone entertainment. Today, people don't just want to go to a movie, they want to go into a movie.
Or so we're told. I must admit that there's something luxurious about the sheer size of the screen at the Star Cinema IMAX. You may not lose yourself in it, depending on where you sit, but you definitely won't feel like you're slouched on the couch in your living room. And when you strap on those goggles, you may find yourself launched on a journey to the future of movie-going. Or not. As the multiplexes come up with ever more creative ways of getting us to leave the house, I can't help but recall the wit and wisdom of Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who committed one of his infamous Goldwynisms in response to the introduction of three-dimensional movies in the '50s. "The only important dimension," Goldwyn said, "is the story."