Every generation or two, the pitched rivalry between cinema and video erupts into full-fledged war. At times wary allies, the movie house and the home entertainment system engage in a tug of war for the audience's time and attention. Movies may be making more money than they did last year, but the aesthetic advantage likely lies with DVD and high-definition formats such as Blu-Ray. Why pay spiraling prices for a crummy theatrical experience when you can wait about four months and buy the DVD for only twice the cost of a ticket?
For decades, filmmakers and exhibitors have competed against the lower prices and at-home convenience of TV and video with a weapon your rec room system can't match: sheer spectacle. High-tech formats and newfangled versions of vintage gimmicks enhance the audience's movie-going experience, and this weekend offers a showcase for both new and old-fashioned flavors of eye candy.
When black-and-white television sets became popular in the 1950s, Hollywood fought back in several ways: Color became commonplace, screens got wider, stories became more grandiose and running times grew longer. No film was bigger than 1959's Ben-Hur, a sprawling tale of religion and political rivalry that's justly famed for its spectacular chariot race. Ben-Hur was filmed in an extra-wide process called "MGM Camera 65," making the film nearly three times as wide as it is tall (a ratio of 2.76:1). The industry standard for a widescreen film is about half that (1.33:1). The Fox boasts one of Atlanta's biggest screens and will present Ben-Hur at 2.35:1 – still pretty darn wide.
Ben-Hur holds up better than many of the era's epics, which often creaked under the weight of self-importance (not to mention running times that required intermissions). Hollywood can seldom afford to make such cast-of-thousands period sagas any more, but digital technology provides some flashy substitutes, including the resurgence of 3-D, perhaps the 1950s' most famous gimmick.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is billed as the first live-action, nondocumentary film shot in digital 3-D – a full-color process that still requires special glasses. The story proves rather tame, as Brendan Fraser, his spunky nephew and a hot Icelandic guide discover that Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Center of the Earth is actually a guide to a subterranean realm full of prehistoric flora and fauna.
With a family-adventure tone comparable to the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movies, Journey provides a couple of cool moments, such as the heroes fending off fishy monsters while navigating an underground sea. Director Eric Brevig emphasizes the kind of corny 3-D effects that amount to shoving stuff conspicuously at the camera – most memorably a sink's-eye view of Fraser spitting water at the audience.
The technically advanced 3-D effects look surprisingly conventional, and not that much better than my memories of Friday the 13th Part 3 from 25 years ago. (Plus, Journey lacks such indelible images as an eyeball shooting from a skull.) Brevig relies on silliness such as a high-speed mine-car ride that comes off as a second-rate version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's chase scene. It seems aimed at audiences whose "staycation" budget prevents them from visiting an actual amusement park, and never achieves the intensity and ingenuity of last year's 3-D animated film Beowulf.
The best 3-D I ever saw was an undersea documentary at the Tennessee Aquarium's IMAX screen. Atlanta's Fernbank Museum of Natural History presents astonishingly gorgeous IMAX documentaries, but alas, isn't equipped for 3-D films. Increasingly, studios are remastering mainstream films in IMAX format, which features huge screens, kick-ass sound systems and sharp resolution. Warner Brothers is particularly bullish on the form, and next week's release of The Dark Knight includes four scenes shot in IMAX 3-D.
I know many people who've been unimpressed by new releases remastered for IMAX, but I never saw one until I took my daughter to see Kung Fu Panda: The IMAX Experience at the Mall of Georgia. During the preshow sound-system demo featuring rain-forest noises and bombastic music, my 5-year-old said, "It sounds like God is rising from the dead."
The IMAX Kung Fu Panda was practically a different movie than the one I saw at Phipps Plaza a month ago. The high-resolution film presented a strikingly crisp image. I was hypnotized by the weave in Master Shifu's robes and the rhino prison guards' pebbled hides. Computer animation has now become sophisticated enough to live up to both IMAX's huge scope and fine details, which may explain why so many CGI and performance-capture animated films are being tailored to the format.
Unfortunately for Atlantans, the Mall of Georgia's IMAX theater is both expensive and far away. Driving to Buford means at least an hour round trip, assuming you hit no traffic problems. Our tickets totaled $26 for one adult and one child – on a Friday afternoon. How much are you willing to pay for perfection, especially when cartoon features such as Kung Fu Panda last about an hour and a half?
IMAX and digital 3-D formats continue to break new ground, but probably haven't compensated for DVD's advantages. Meanwhile, some exhibitors try to appeal to their audience's other senses. A remodeled AMC Buckhead Backlot 6 reopens on Friday, July 11, as the AMC Fork & Screen Buckhead, a first-run movie house that offers tabletop dining and "seat-side service." Of course, such venues can split the viewer's attention between edible attractions and the spectacle of the film itself, suggesting that another front is opening up in the never-ending battle to coax audiences into movie theaters.
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