I’ve never really been a big fan of movie theaters, and I’ve never been afraid of voicing that opinion. Mainly because the creature comforts of home and the ability to pause a movie are far more appealing than watching a movie with a bunch of strangers on someone else’s schedule.
But recently I discovered there is something that can convince me a trip to the theater is worthwhile — provided the circumstances are right. It's the kind of thing I can’t get at home: the IMAX experience
IMAX is the right kind of gimmick to get butts in seats
Movie theaters have always had an uphill battle drawing people in when the allure of home viewing is all too real. Whether we’re talking Cinerama back in the 1950s or the modern 4DX theaters that try to turn your viewing experience into a half-baked amusement park ride. Because these are all things that are totally impractical in the majority of living rooms.
And it’s not just the gimmicky viewings either. Of my nearest two cinemas, one only charges £5 ($7) for an adult ticket, while the other is outfitted with soft leather recliners and leg room that would make an airline CEO blush. Presumably the idea is that the best way to get butts in seats is to appeal to what people want: low prices and the kind of comforts they may not have at home.
And it worked. Back when I was living within walking distance of the theater, and didn’t have to worry about parking or traffic, I’d go to the theater on a whim. I even saw Rampage, which was absolutely not a good movie, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t have plans, and the ticket cost me only £5.
But that was pre-Covid, and these days it’s taking a lot more to get me out of the house and into a room with dozens of other people. Aside from the latest comic book movies like The Suicide Squad or Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the one thing I have realized will help get me out of the home theater is an IMAX theater.
I realized this isn’t an entirely new development either. Back in the far-gone days of 2009, I avoided seeing Avatar when it came out because I decided I wanted to see it in IMAX. The movie was, by and large, selling itself on being a visual spectacle and I figured IMAX was the way to go. I just had to wait a couple of weeks for the Christmas break, where I’d be staying with my parents and had access to a car.
Granted, in the years since, I haven’t had such a great experience with IMAX. Suffering through the horrific blurry 3D conversion attempted by the final Harry Potter movie, going out of my way to see the snoozefest that was Marvel TV’s Inhumans, or a slightly awkward date that was only made awkward by the fact Gemini Man exists.
Bigger is better, and Dune proved that on IMAX
Dune is a great example of that. Because HBO Max isn’t available in this country, my only legal options were to see it in a theater or wait for it to arrive via the usual channels of home distribution. Honestly? I could have waited. I’ve read the book, so couldn’t have the movie spoiled, and we’re having to wait for at least two years for the rest of the story anyway.
But one of the biggest draws of Dune was the spectacle, and I figured my TV — nice as it is — wouldn’t be the same as a bonafide IMAX theater. Mainly because IMAX screens are big, 52 feet high, on average, and 72 feet wide — or slightly more than three and a half stories high if that helps you visualize it more clearly. That’s bigger than my house, let alone my TV screen.
IMAX also has the added advantage of a larger aspect ratio: 1:90:1 in most multiplexes. That’s taller than the 16:9 ratio on your TV and the 2:4:1 offered by standard movie theater screens. And Dune pushes the ratio even taller, with a peak aspect ratio of 1.43:1 on IMAX Laser (the best IMAX) presentations. Naturally, that means movie scenes filmed with IMAX cameras have more to show, something Denis Villeneuve took advantage of in his latest blockbuster.
After all, Dune is an epic tale that is very location-specific, and being able to see as much of Arrakis as possible does help you get an idea of how desolate a planet it really is. But there’s also a lot going on in Dune’s IMAX scenes, to the point where I found myself wondering how the editor was going to crop the image and still include all the important stuff.
It's to the point where I’d say Villeneuve shouldn’t have been encouraging people to ditch HBO Max and watch the movie in a theater. He should have been insisting people go and see it in IMAX instead. I’m not the only one with this opinion either, since Tom’s Guide Streaming Editor Henry T Casey admitted that he should have seen the movie in IMAX first He's since seen the film in IMAX, and confirmed his suspicions.
While my choice of seat meant I was a little too close to one of the speakers (which hurt my ears at times), I enjoyed the experience a lot more than I did watching The Suicide Squad. In fact, I booked a ticket to see Marvel's Eternals, which has similarly been filmed with IMAX in mind, almost as soon as I got home.
It does help that Chloé Zhao is a very visual director, and Eternals promises to have a lot of the same big visual pieces that makes Dune in IMAX so appealing. Zhao even recently admitted that Denis Villeneuve helped her out with the IMAX portions of the movie.
Even with IMAX's drawbacks, it’s still worth it
Obviously all the benefits to seeing a movie in IMAX can work against it as well. The fact that it is very much a specialist kind of cinema means they’re nowhere near as widespread as regular movie theaters. Your odds of finding more than one IMAX screen in a single multiplex are basically zero, and that limits the number of available screenings in a given day.
My nearest IMAX is a 45-minute drive away, and only seems to schedule three screenings a day. And for the average person working a 9 to 5, those times were pretty awkward. More so considering Dune is two and a half hours long.
IMAX tickets also cost more. If I’d seen a standard screening of Dune at the same time as my IMAX screening, it would have cost about half the price. Even as U.K. cinemas seem to be competing in a race to the bottom, IMAX is still the pricier option. For a solo moviegoer, or a couple, that forgoes the overpriced popcorn, that’s not so bad. But if you’re part of a large group, or a family viewing, and doubling up the price isn’t quite as economical.
But for me, if I’m going to make a trip to the theater and forgo the ability to pause and go to the bathroom halfway though, I better make sure that trip is well worth the effort.
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