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Journey to Space
A Mars-bound spacecraft from the new IMAX film Journey to Space. (credit: IMAX)

Journey to whatever

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In the mid-1970s when the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum opened in Washington, DC, one of the museum’s attractions was a still-novel giant screen theater using a film format known as IMAX. The museum debuted a new movie called To Fly! that told the story of early flight and wowed audiences with stunning vistas and an inspiring soundtrack. IMAX back then was essentially an arthouse attraction. The movies cost a lot of money, they only showed in museums, and they were rare, with new films appearing perhaps every year or two. The movies quite often were ambitious, striving not only for inspiring visuals but also broad scope and emotional impact. By the 1980s astronauts were carrying IMAX cameras into space with them, resulting in the 1985 film The Dream is Alive. In 1990, Blue Planet, one of the best IMAX movies ever, debuted. It combined stunning imagery of the Earth from space with a powerful story of environmental destruction. If an IMAX film was done right it told its story not so much through words as images, sounds and emotions. You did not watch it, you experienced it.

One of the film’s biggest problems is that the story feels like a checklist, with scenes and even individual shots inserted only to satisfy a local audience or exploit the film format and sound system.

But eventually IMAX transformed. It became more commercial, and less ambitious. IMAX films became less of an experience and more like a big-screen documentary not much different than what you could see on television. Now a new IMAX film is opening in various theaters in science and space-themed museums around the country. Called Journey to Space, it seeks to tell the story of America’s next steps in human spaceflight following the end of the Space Shuttle program. It is a disappointing film, lackluster, and well, conventional.

The film starts with footage of the retirement of the shuttles and their transportation to museums, all of which (with the exception of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum)x` will be showing Journey, so naturally they’re all shown. It then transitions to scenes of astronauts training and developing hardware, as well as working on the International Space Station. Because it is shown in 3D, there are plenty of instances where somebody tosses something at the camera, fan service for little kids in the audience.

Indeed, one of the film’s biggest problems is that the story feels like a checklist, with scenes and even individual shots inserted only to satisfy a local audience or exploit the film format and sound system. While tossing objects at the camera is a cheap trick for 3D, it seems like every IMAX film has to feature something loud. Even though the movie starts with the shuttle’s retirement, there is a shuttle launch shoehorned into the middle of the film, with the deep rumbling from the sound system to shake the audience’s seats. The scene isn’t really connected to the story at that point, but obviously the director felt the need to give the audience some candy.

Other scenes include the development of the Orion spacecraft, new spacesuits, the SLS rocket, and even Bigelow’s inflatable space habitats. Again it’s filmmaking by checklist. Even NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission is depicted, although if it is canceled in a few years the film will quickly feel dated. In fact, some of the spacesuit development work shown in the film has already been discontinued.

There is an animated sequence near the end depicting a human mission to Mars with a large ion-powered spaceship. That includes a nifty but way too short sequence showing a large human spacecraft decelerating in the tenuous Martian atmosphere with the aid of an inflatable heat shield. But this is followed by crude animation of balloon-shaped astronauts awkwardly walking around the red planet. A Mars landing sequence that could have been tense and exciting instead seems rather humdrum.

Journey to Space is officially narrated by Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation and several movies. But one of the problems with the film is that Stewart is not the only narrator. There are at least a couple of others, one of them a former shuttle astronaut, and the narration keeps shifting back and forth among them, which is at best slightly jarring.

When it should inspire, Journey to Space just never seems to get off the ground.

Another issue is that the movie is shown in 3D. There are many ways to achieve the 3D effect, but because much of the footage in the movie was not originally shot in 3D, it is actually a compromise projection technique. One result is that at times the image flickers, possibly causing headaches among some audience members. Another problem is that a surprising amount of the footage used in the film was not originally shot in IMAX format, so the director has sought to compensate by cutting to a reduced screen size for many of the images. This may have been unavoidable for some of the footage (The Dream is Alive had to do it because of problems with the IMAX cameras in space), but it happens a lot and it detracts from the experience—every time the narrator shifts or the image goes from large screen to small your brain has to readjust. It becomes a confusing experience.

Because IMAX films are so expensive to make it is not uncommon for them to reuse footage, but again Journey seemed to do this more than normal. There was launch footage of Space Shuttle Columbia lifting off, which was obviously shot at least thirteen years ago, and animated Hubble Space Telescope images that were taken from the previous IMAX film Hubble 3D. The vast majority of audiences probably will not have seen this footage unless they’ve seen earlier IMAX films (Hubble 3D premiered in 2010), but Journey still felt somewhat like a clip show.

The film was sponsored by both Toyota and Boeing. It used to be that when corporate sponsors underwrote films like this they got their name at the beginning and end credits and that was it. Now they clearly want more, including prominent feature of their corporate logos in the middle of the film, and either narrators or subjects mentioning it multiple times. It was not as bad as a recent feature film that I saw where characters kept mentioning the name of a pizza restaurant and a dating website multiple times even though it had nothing to do with the story, but it still was a bit disconcerting to have the logos hovering over the screen even when it was not really appropriate. What was equally amusing was the fact that although the Orion space capsule features prominently in the story, Lockheed Martin’s name and logo do not appear. SpaceX gets a brief mention, which they undoubtedly paid for.

If you were a kid in the 1970s sitting in the National Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater and watching To Fly! for the first time you might have emerged inspired to become a pilot, or build airplanes. If you saw The Dream is Alive in the mid-eighties you would have wanted to become an astronaut. And if you had seen Blue Planet in the early 1990s you might have been inspired to save the rain forests and battle air pollution. All those films had a powerful emotional center, a message that was perfectly conveyed through the big screen IMAX format. When it should inspire, Journey to Space just never seems to get off the ground.