Judge Jeff Andreasen says, "Hmmmm...twenty million for a real trip to the International Space Station...a hundred million for a moon flyby...or a yuppie food stamp for an IMAX DVD...hmmmmmmmm...now let me think about that for a minute here..."
Trespassing in the final frontier.
If you can't go…go IMAX! Since none of us mere mortals have the simoleans (or notoriety) to thumb a ride to the International Space Station at the edge of the final frontier, this awesome presentation is as close as we're ever going to get. At least until September's Magnificent Desolation premieres in IMAX theaters around the globe.
The IMAX system was designed by Canadians Grame Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, and Robert Kerr for EXPO '67 in Montreal, Canada. It premiered in 1970 with the film, Tiger Child, at EXPO '70 in Osaka, Japan, and was eventually awarded a Scientific and Engineering Oscar from the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986 after IMAX's first 3-D film, We are Born of Stars, debuted in 1985. The system itself consists of a revolutionary projector technique involving horizontal film movement and unprecedented focus and steadiness, resulting in the most stable image ever…and the closest a viewer will come to seeing real life on a movie screen. The sound comes at you with 36,000 watts from four 900-pound Kanga speakers behind the screen and two behind the audience at the back of the theater, and two subwoofers at the base of the screen thrown in for good measure. That's a lot of sound and picture.
Resplendent with everything that is great about IMAX—stunning (and stunningly sharp) images that take you beyond the Earth's atmosphere, and audio that surrounds you with the thunder of liftoff and the nervous breaths of astronauts taking their first tentative steps in the vacuum of space—Space Station is another glorious success in the IMAX portfolio. The feature takes you through the construction process, including several launches responsible for nothing more than getting station modules into orbit, through the tenures of the first few crews and their efforts to get the rig operational. There are segments devoted to depicting the virtual reality and underwater training of the construction crew, and incredible footage of space walks and space shuttles docking with the station.
It must've been something else to experience this the way it was intended: 3-D images assaulting you from a 50-foot high screen stretching wall to wall with a sound system designed to immerse you in a theater experience unlike anything you've ever encountered (or endured, depending on your point of view on such things). Alas, this is my first visit to the Space Station, and it occurred on a 58-inch television screen in glorious 2-D, and not a 58-foot theater megascreen with cool custom credits and pieces of blastoff rubble swirling all over the theater around me.
Listening to the audio on this DVD in the comfort of your own home is somewhat less bombastic than sitting in an IMAX theater and feeling a wave of fire and smoke thundering toward you and buffeting you in a sonic hurricane. Watching it in your home (even on a 58-inch HD television) reduces it even further. A decent surround system will tease you with an inkling of what the actual presentation should sound like, and did in IMAX theaters worldwide in 2002. My Creative 5.1 system gave me a tantalizing taste of how incredible the audio experience must have been. Two moments in the film stand out: the service module launch from Kazakhstan in Russia, and a moment on the seashore as waves lap the sand. All five speakers rumble with the restrained power of ignition and then the front speakers explode with the fury of the explosive launch. The quake of blastoff surges at you as a wave of fire and smoke, and dust hurtles toward you and then all five speakers inundate you with chaos. It's awesome. Similarly, the moment with the waves oozing along the sandy shore surrounds you with beach sounds you don't hear even when you're actually at the beach.
There is no part of the presentation wherein the sound lacks (though your speakers may lack), but it's especially awesome in the above two instances. The picture quality is amazing as well. As one might expect with video shot to be displayed at three times the size of a 70mm frame, there is no coloring outside the lines, no lack of clarity in any image, and an amazing depth to the images in space. If you were lucky enough to have seen this in an IMAX theater, you must have felt like you actually were in space. Unfortunately, even sitting a few feet away from a mighty 58-inch Toshiba doesn't come close to approximating the experience of an exponentially huge display. Enjoy it for what it is, and lament that you're not enjoying it as it was meant to be.
The extras are almost more worthwhile than the feature. There are two 15-minute tours of the International Space Station, one from Expedition 7 astronaut Dr. Ed Lu on board the station, and one from the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour (though the Discovery makes a cameo in this tour, as well). The first is a rather mundane tour of the station itself, with the narration provided via what seems to be a radio headset…which is damn annoying with the inherent breaks and crackling. It's interesting to see the day-to-day aspects of station life, with exercise of paramount concern to prevent the loss of muscle tissue and bone density in the weightless environment. But the station interior is a cluttered mess, more like the space-at-a-premium confines of a World War II U-Boat than the sprawling corridors of Starbase 12. Cargo is strapped to the walls and floor, wires and cables dangle everywhere, and computer consoles protrude from every bulkhead. Still, one look out of one of the many porthole windows at the gleaming Earth makes the claustrophobic environment bearable.
The second tour is more interesting, and better filmed, with much higher video quality than the previous excursion. The voiceovers are recorded separately, so there is none of the "Houston, Tranquility Base here" breakup present in the other tour. This presentation takes us from the launch of the Endeavour to its arrival at and docking with the International Space Station. We tag along as the crew makes repairs to the station's exterior and loads supplies and equipment aboard using the shuttle's massive mechanical arm. It's also cool to see the surface tension experiment, with M&Ms being inserted into a huge, floating globule of water. We also see the shuttle crew release a disco ball into orbit. That's right, folks…a disco ball.
The featurette, "Adventures in Space," is a very informative, 22-minute piece that served, firstly, to slather props all over Lockheed Martin for its sponsorship of the IMAX program, and, secondly, to provide an interesting documentary on the process of filming in space. We learn, for instance, that the astronauts had to undergo 30 hours of training on the IMAX cameras in addition to their regular schedule, and that the exterior IMAX camera positioned in the shuttle bay had only eight minutes worth of film per expedition! Needless to say, anxiety abounded over whether the astronauts would film eight good, Cecil B. DeMille minutes, or return to Earth with a reel of crap from the Michael Bay School of Nausea.
IMAX has also included a rather paltry collection of 16 photos in a step-through gallery. While most of the pictures are incredibly detailed and wondrous in their content, the final few are of the decidedly prosaic Tom Cruise, who, unfortunately, narrates the actual feature. While some people may think Cruise is a great actor (I'm not among them, but who the heck am I?), he's not much in the narration department, and detracts somewhat from the overall impact of the film. It's nice to have Cruise's name on the broadside and it might sell a few more tickets, but IMAX should've hired a real voice talent for this project. How William Shatner, a decent documentary narrator and natural for the content, didn't occur to them is beyond me.
The last extra is a commentary track by director Toni Myers and astronaut Marsha Ivins. Both women have a lot to say about both the 3-D filming and the experience of being aboard both the space shuttle and the space station, and this commentary would make a fine substitute for the Tom Cruise narration if you don't feel like watching the feature twice (sort of like turning on the radio play-by-play and turning off John Madden for Monday Night Football).
This DVD is not guilty of criminal trespass. Even if there were nothing else but the feature presentation on this DVD, it would be acquitted on all charges. Think of it more along the lines of a guided tour. IMAX was made to bring the experience of events and places the average Joe either will most likely never get to (like, say, the Arctic), doesn't recognize as incredible (Alaska), can't fully experience (NASCAR), or cannot comprehend (space). Bringing glorious vistas of natural splendor and power to a venue so massive and overwhelming is how IMAX makes even the most jaded dullard drool stupidly and utter dumfounded words of astonishment. The effort is no less appreciated on home video, though it is, admittedly, less astounding on the lesser equipment.
Tom Cruise is sentenced to banishment from narration duties. And from interview shows.
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• "Adventures in Space" Featurette
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