What's the last time you got to see a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza on film? For a lot of people, it may have been Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol last year. The digital changeover has transformed most of the country's multiplexes (including all of them here in Nashville) into data-delivery sites. That's not an evaluation, just an observation. But how weird it was to see a 70mm presentation of something with explosions, and mayhem, and leaping!
Then came talk of the next Batman film. And now the time has come for the Opry Mills IMAX, once lost to the 2010 flood, to serve up some multi-story blockbuster action. Christopher Nolan's final Batman film has more than an hour of full-height 70mm footage throughout its near-three-hour runtime, and the man knows his spectacle. He has an instinct for the little moments that benefit from the shifted perspectives of multiformat shooting — and as with 2008's The Dark Knight, he delivers a lot of bang for your buck.
I'm reticent to get further into the actual film itself, due to the death threats bandied about by anonymous Internet commentators (who hadn't even seen the film) against my critical brethren. But I will wholeheartedly say that 70mm is the ideal way to experience the majesty of Anne Hathaway getting her Catwoman on. And however unintentionally, the shifting aspect ratios (1.44:1 for full-height IMAX, traditional 2.35:1 Cinemascope for the rest) reflect the shifting ideologies at play amongst the characters, script and film — not to mention in the countless thinkpieces drawing facile connections to current political races, the Occupy movement and the vanishing middle class. (Spoiler alert: There is no middle class in The Dark Knight Rises.)
The most depressing aspect of the digital takeover of the past few years has been IMAX's willingness to sabotage its own brand. With its name licensed out to run-and-gun refurbished theatres with screens comparable to larger multiplex houses — or worse, the bogus "digital IMAX" experience — it's getting harder and harder to recommend looking for that particular logo. Perhaps someday (soon, we hope), digital projectors will be able to properly fill the giant true IMAX screens, delivering an enhanced resolution that cannot be recreated anywhere else.
That's the beauty of the full-on 70mm experience — it is simply so tall and so big that it can't be approximated by any other means commercially available at the moment. That's what justifies the higher ticket prices, and what makes them a rip-off when the venue offers an inferior variation on the IMAX brand. The standard approach to digital exhibition allows for some degree of uniformity in film presentation, yet the crucial innovation hasn't come along that would make a non-film IMAX presentation worthy of one's extra dollars.
It's a weird time for the exhibition industry, now that the bloom is off the 3D rose. You'd think studios would embrace a premium experience that actually seems to have some market stability. Granted, there have only been four feature films with actual shot-in-70mm IMAX segments, the other three being the aforementioned Dark Knight and Ghost Protocol along with Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen. But clearly there's money to be made there.
And Nolan's quite admirable devotion to 70mm shows it can be employed for artistic purposes as well as commercial concerns. He uses its textures in as masterful a way as Moonrise Kingdom does the color saturation of Super 16, or Prometheus does the physical space of true stereoscopic 3D.
So let's hope that money continues to talk and that we can occasionally get the experience of full-on 70mm splendor at the movies. For the time being, we can do so at Opry Mills, sloughing off the digital world for a little while and soaking up the grain and the glory of light projected through plastic emulsion.