It is simple math to Judge David Packard. 3D minus 1D equals a standard DVD.
"There is no doubt about precisely when folks began racing each other in automobiles. It was the day they built the second automobile."—Richard Petty
Petty's comment that opens this feature on America's fastest-growing sport will have to suffice, as the original tagline ("up to 8 stories high" and "12,000 watts of sound"!) no longer applies unless you're watching this DVD in your own personal IMAX theater. Unfortunately, the absence of the massive screen, turbo-charged sound system, and the 3D presentation from the original IMAX release are the least of this DVD's problems. Technically, it's impressive, but the program itself is often dull, and amazingly lacking in what folks really want to see—namely, the racing. When it finally lumbers across the finish line, NASCAR—The IMAX Experience can only be recommended for the truly diehard NASCAR fan.
Facts of the Case
Capitalizing on the wild popularity of professional stock car racing, NASCAR—The IMAX Experience crams much into its 48-minute running time. 24's Kiefer Sutherland narrates NASCAR's story from its Southern beginnings (moonshine runners!) to the formal organization that it is today. Along the way, we're introduced to old school legends, the construction of a race car, the rabid passion and loyalty of the sport's fans, and the hard work and importance of those who aren't behind the wheel on race day. Endless statistics and money figures are peppered throughout the program to give viewers a better idea of just how much NASCAR has grown since those early days of dirt track racing.
Let's get it out of the way right now: I'm not a NASCAR hater, though I wouldn't necessarily call myself a crazed fan, either. I'll watch the big races from time to time, and I've been to a few Brickyard 500s at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Still, I'll admit that the NFL is my sport of choice on any given Sunday, and I generally don't get too excited watching cars turn left (unless it's a road course race) for several hours. The bottom line is that it doesn't mean I wasn't willing to give this DVD an honest test drive.
Obviously, the big draw of this film was the 3D IMAX presentation. Reiterating my earlier assumption that you probably don't have your own personal IMAX theater, it's understandable that the visceral impact of 12,000 watts of digital sound and a retina-popping eight-story screen have been jettisoned for the DVD release. However, the lack of a 3D viewing option means that the bells and whistles of the original presentation have been stripped away, leaving the film to stand by itself. Unfortunately, what's left is a ho-hum pseudo-documentary that tries to do too much in the short time it's been given.
Fifty years of organized NASCAR racing and history has been condensed into a scant 48 minutes, and the film suffers for it. It's admirable that director Simon Wincer has attempted to cover so much, but the end result feels awkward as we're rushed from one topic to the next. Much time is spent focusing on what happens off the track, and this is where the real issue lies. NASCAR fans will learn little that they already didn't know; as I said, I'm hardly a NASCAR-holic, yet even I knew about the use of standardized templates in building a car, the importance of building different cars for short tracks versus larger "mile" tracks, how a draft works, and the unyielding enthusiasm and devotion that fans display for their favorite driver. Viewers with less interest in the sport will find much of the non-racing content (and there's a lot of it) dull and disengaging.
As the film finally moves from the body shops and other pre-race preparations to race day itself, we're well into the last half of the film. It's a relief when Sutherland—who sounds as if he'd much rather be somewhere else instead of reading the narration—finally announces, "Okay, strap in and hold on, we're going racing!" Naturally, this is where the absent 3D presentation is most noticeable. While a few of the camera angles used are excellent, much of it doesn't vary much from what you'd see during a televised race. The use of rotating in-car cameras is commonplace today and gives weekly viewers great shots of a driver behind the wheel, or a competitor rumbling just inches off the rear bumper in the draft. The result is a feeling that we've seen this before. Even the Top Gun-on-wheels movie, Days of Thunder, sports some impressive on-track cinematography that adds to the been-there done-that feeling of this film. A good home theater may reproduce the cacophony of roaring engines and crisp visuals well enough, but the lack of 3D means that the racing itself—and let's face it, that's really what we want to see—underwhelms. The use of other camera techniques like fisheye lenses and aerial shots (a passing shot of a Goodyear blimp hovering over a racetrack is particularly notable) lose much of their luster as they move to the two-dimensional small screen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I mentioned that NASCAR nuts will learn little they don't already know, but that doesn't mean the film is completely without its moments. Sutherland is armed with statistics out the wazoo, and you'll learn specifics regarding car and engine specifications, how much a tire costs, and the total payroll for an average team. Fans will enjoy the visits to places like "Garage Mahal" (Dale Earnhardt, Inc.) and the shops of team owners like Joe Gibbs (yes, the NFL football coach) and Jack Roush.
Even with the loss of the 3D presentation, some of the cinematography is spectacular. Cameras are mounted on the outside of a driver's door or on a rear bumper, giving views of a race you don't always see on network television. Perhaps most impressive is a flyover of F-16 fighter jets during pre-race ceremonies in the last half of the film. This shot features the camera mounted on one of the trailing jets as they scream over the racetrack and thousands of fans below; even on a small screen, it's impressive.
Technically, the presentation is flawless. Digitally mastered from the original 70mm film elements, the picture and sound are pristine. There's nary a fleck of debris, dirt, or scratches to be found, and the Dolby Digital sound brings the thundering engines, soaring jet flyovers, whirring air jacks, and the footfalls of scampering pit crews to crisp life. And where else can you hear the sizzling of grub on a grill—not once, but twice—in such detail?
The two extras are brief and, while not spectacular, are passable. "Driver Profiles" features various NASCAR drivers sharing their thoughts on speed, fear, and competition. "NASCAR's Closest Racing Moments" is the more enjoyable of the two extras. It showcases some of the closest, down-to-the-wire finishes in NASCAR history.
In the end, NASCAR—The IMAX Experience feels like a quick cash-in on the exploding popularity of the sport. I don't doubt that this film worked during its original theatrical release, but the IMAX experience glossed up what is really a bland, crammed summary of a sport that deserves better.
Guilty as charged. NASCAR aficionados are allowed conjugal visits in the infield trailer, while everyone else is advised to sit through repeated viewings of Days of Thunder until your eyes bleed. Court adjourned.
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