Every Blockbuster Should Be Shot in IMAX
If you believe it is a spoiler to say that Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, and that a movie about Armstrong’s life might depict that event, then be aware that this article contains SPOILERS for First Man.
140,000 feet above the Earth, peering out a dingy window the size of a dinner tray, G-forces rattling his brain, Neil Armstrong had an epiphany.
Later, he would explain it to the administrators of NASA at his interview to join the Gemini astronaut program. They want to know why a man like Armstrong — a civilian with a young family — would volunteer for an incredibly dangerous job. Looking at our planet from its upper atmosphere, he claims, did something to him. “
He spends the rest of the movie chasing that perspective. His hunger for that high explains why he goes to such lengths, makes such personal sacrifices, and endures such incredible loss to remain with the Gemini and Apollo programs. And then he gets selected to command Apollo 11, and becomes the first man to step foot on the Moon. After all of that build-up, how do you capture the euphoria and perspective-shifting wonder of that experience?
For director Damien Chazelle the answer was to film the lunar sequences from his biopic about Armstrong, First Man, with IMAX cameras. When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) open the door of the lunar module on the Moon, the camera zooms through the hatch and — if you’re lucky enough to see First Man in true IMAX — the frame suddenly expands to fill the entire screen. Prior to that moment, First Man is shot in grainy, muted 16mm. After the change to IMAX on the Moon, the images aren’t just bigger — they’re shockingly crystal clear.
It’s an amazing use of form following function. Armstrong believes space exploration will change the way the entire world looks at itself. Everyone who watches First Man in IMAX will literally see the movie differently after the moment Armstrong walks on the Moon.
Even with its impressive formal dexterity, though, I doubt First Man will shift humanity’s consciousness. The world is so dumb now that people — including elected officials at the highest levels of government — got mad at this movie because it didn’t have the American flag in it, even though they hadn’t actually watched the film and it does have the American flag in it. (By the way, what’s that thing on Gosling’s left shoulder in the picture above? Can you make it out for me?)
If we’re lucky, though, First Man might convince viewers that IMAX is the only current theatrical upcharge that’s really worth the money — and it might push more filmmakers and studios to invest in some IMAX cameras. It’s already been 10 years since the idea of using IMAX in narrative films really took hold, and yet in that time less than two dozen Hollywood productions have taken full advantage of the format. Disregarding the costs for a moment (and sure, they can be high) why isn’t every big blockbuster movie shot on IMAX?
The film that changed how the public looked at IMAX was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Before its release, IMAX was largely associated with science museums and nature documentaries. Some Hollywood releases had been projected in IMAX — I saw The Matrix Revolutions in IMAX at the AMC in Lincoln Square in 2003 (it still sucked) — but The Dark Knight was the first major film partly shot with IMAX cameras. I saw The Dark Knight on that same IMAX screen in 2008 and when that opening full-frame helicopter shot blasted onto the screen, the entire auditorium gasped at the same time. It was one of those rare moments where you instantly knew that something about cinema had changed forever.
Nolan’s choice to shoot in IMAX paid major dividends, both creatively and financially. But while screening big blockbusters has since become the industry standard, shooting them that way has not. Wikipedia lists only about a dozen movies shot on IMAX film cameras. A handful more were shot digitally in IMAX. And that’s ... it.
Yet almost all of the the most transcendent moments I’ve experienced in the theater over the last decade have been IMAX movies. That includes Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, with its vertiginous sequence atop the Burj Khalifa. It induced so much palm sweat each ticket should have come with a commemorative Ghotocol paper towel to wipe your hands. Nolan nearly topped himself in the IMAX department with The Dark Knight Rises, which opened with its own absurd visual spectacle, a mid-air heist of a private plane where the bad guys stole an entire plane.
A few of the movies remastered for IMAX after being shot on other cameras are almost as spectacular. Like Gravity, with its astounding space walk sequences that made you feel like you were actually floating through space. The IMAX 3D version of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, about Philippe Petit’s high-wire act between the towers of the World Trade Center, was maybe the most viscerally transportive experience I’ve ever had in any movie.
So why hasn’t IMAX completely taken over the upper echelons of Hollywood moviemaking? A recent article in Polygon about the 10th anniversary of The Dark Knight and the “reverse revolution” it inspired blames the simultaneous introduction of RealD 3D in films like Avatar. “It was easier to rig a theater with 3D projectors,” they write, “than build new, true IMAX rooms, and so they did.”
It’s true that it’s easier (not to mention a lot cheaper) to retrofit a theater for 3D than for IMAX. The lack of genuine IMAX screens, along with the expense of shooting with IMAX cameras (particularly on celluloid) is a big prohibiting factor for many productions. So is the fact that IMAX cameras are generally bigger, heavier, and more unwieldly than non-IMAX ones. That makes them more difficult to use, and less useful in movies set in tight spaces or featuring lots of dialogue.
Plus, even when filmmakers do use IMAX, they almost always use it for select scenes and shots, and the cutting back and forth from widescreen to full-frame can become distracting if it happens often enough — a complaint that was widely raised about the IMAX presentation of Transformers: The Last Knight, for example. IMAX can’t save a lemon. It can only make parts of the lemon look really cool.
In the right director’s hands, though, IMAX is the pinnacle of large-scale moviemaking. It’s far more immersive than any 3D I’ve ever seen. First Man’s effects in IMAX are so impressive they really do instill a sense of awe. A lot of the shots in the lunar sequence are from Armstrong’s point-of-view, inviting us to imagine what he saw, and perhaps to comprehend a small fraction of what he must have felt looking at a view no being in history had ever encountered before.
First Man is an inspiring movie, and also a sad one. It shows what our society is capable of when we come together for a common goal — and reminds us how rarely that happens. Man once went to the Moon. Now we just make movies about it. At the very least, those movies should be spectacular. So let’s have more IMAX. It would be a start — a small step, if not a giant leap.
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