IMAX At Pacific Science Center

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A ‘Beautiful’ Review

by | Jul 28, 2016

Ever since the 1980’s, there has been an unofficial rite of passage for young Pacific Science Center members. In the tradition of riding the high-rail bike or seeing one’s first naked mole rat, there is one more experience that all card-holders should go through.

You have to see an IMAX space documentary.

The newest collaboration between NASA and IMAX is A Beautiful Planet 3D. The most recent space film was the tremendous Hubble 3D in 2010. In the time between those two movies, Hollywood has cranked out an annual space flick. After Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian (as I like to call them, the stranded astronauts trilogy), we tend to think we know all there is to learn about space. Matt Damon has gone through the experience twice, how hard can it be?

That is where a solid IMAX documentary teaches us. Oddly enough, there is no requisite shot of a rocket blasting off, soaring towards the sky, and almost-deafening every small child in the audience. Instead, the movie starts off in orbit and focuses on the astronauts’ experience.

Sandra Bullock slid out of her gear in mere seconds, unassisted. A Beautiful Planet 3D is here to show you what actually goes into that ordeal. It may seem like it is easy to float around in space and “walk” along the space station. But perhaps better than any documentary before, this one portrays the challenge of staying oriented while trying to do intricate work.

A routine that gets new attention is the supply-run. Small, un-manned vehicles keep the space station restocked. And while watching astronauts float past each other in tight quarters, the audience learns just how long a wrench can go missing in space.

As the title suggests, there is plenty to learn about Earth. One of the first interior shots of the shuttle shows an array of cameras and lenses Velcro-ed to the walls of the shuttle, and they get plenty of use. In the first few shots, the terrain is frustratingly undescribed. (What continent are we looking at? What country was that? Can I see my house from here?) Thankfully, as they tour the globe some more, they make it a point to identify each area back home. The shot of the Koreas is especially eye-opening.

Sure you could watch any documentary. Yet there is something about IMAX space films. Where else are you going to see not simply a horizon, but a view of the curvature of Earth? One of the best shots is one where the different layers of the atmosphere are clearly visible and distinguishable. These films are the closest some will get to the Northern Lights, and the vantage point is pretty great.

There are roughly three different ways to narrate an IMAX movie. One can speak with the voice of authority (Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson), a sense of mirth (Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep), or a perpetual tinge of awe (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise). The much-advertised narration by Jennifer Lawrence falls mostly into the last category. She may not reach the grand heights of a Walter Cronkite voice (Who can? He reported on the actual moon landing!), but it suffices. Paired with a rather modern soundtrack, the movie strives to make the presentation approachable to everyone.

Astronauts float in space. Treadmills are used to keep bodies from deteriorating. The viewer is shown Earth, wondrously hanging in the black inkiness. The shots are familiar, yet always striking. (Some shots were borrowed from two other space documentaries. However the director made those films too, so why not use past footage?)

It is, to be honest, “another space movie.” And yet, as with each IMAX space documentary, there is something to be learned. A series of slow pans over the globe fills us with a sense of awe (especially on that six-story screen). The audience gets a reminder that these are scientists having fun, not only doing their jobs, but exploring the universe.

From their “desks,” they cannot tell who is running for office or what the latest phone is to hit the market. What they can tell us is the sense of perspective they attain. Happily, and with the help of a few cameras, they are more than willing to share that with the rest of us down here.