For the last thirty years the 40 minute IMAX film has been a mainstay of large scale museums, science centers and similar attractions. I must have watched dozens of them and, at their best, they're unmatched in terms of combining an educational story with a “wow” experience. My all-time favorite is Space Station 3-D, which is about as close to the actual experience of flying in space as it’s possible to get while staying on terra firma.
But it’s commonly acknowledged that the IMAX brand has been damaged in recent years, and their films have somehow lost that “must see” aura. Why is this? There are various theories, but my personal belief is simply that the standard of movies dropped. I’ve seen several films recently that were like an average TV documentary shown on a very large screen. They left me yearning for the IMAX movies of old, with lush cinematography that could take your breath away and make you feel something. (I’ve heard such scenes described as “IMAX moments”.)
I think IMAX Corp. may have recognized this problem, as they recently announced a $50m fund to make ten high quality documentaries over the next 5 years. And judging by the new release “D-Day, Normandy 1944” the improvement has already begun. It’s the best IMAX film I’ve seen in a long, long time.
The documentary is narrated by Tom Brokaw and has been released as part of the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day. One of the things that impressed me was that it was cleverly structured to work on more than one level. For someone with little knowledge of D-Day, whether a third grader or an adult, it told the basic story of what happened, who did what, and why it was important. But there was also a lot of value for someone that’s studied D-Day closely. The use of computer animations were especially good in this regard, they looked fantastic and helped create insight and understanding.
The bottom line is that I sat down with low expectations but left 45 minutes later with genuine tears in my eyes. As we filed out of the theater, it was clear from the faces of others moviegoers that it had affected many of them too. The closing sequence was incredibly moving, flying low over the Normandy cemeteries in the golden light of sunset with beautiful music by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. An “IMAX moment” if ever there were.
Will there be a large format theater at the CAF National Air Base? It’s something I would like to take a look at, even though some museums are reporting problems with the IMAX business model. There are alternative approaches – for example the “Beyond All Boundaries” presentation at the National WW2 Museum in New Orleans, a “4-D” production supported by Tom Hanks, has clearly been a huge success, an exhibit that transformed the entire museum in a positive way. But one thing is for sure, if we do something along these lines, the content will need to be first class.