IMAX nothing but a big-screen lie at some theaters

I did not mention this in my review of Star Trek in order to avoid putting a negative spin on such an incredible movie, but I technically saw Star Trek: The IMAX Experience. At least that is what my local Regal Cinema claims.

We have a traditional OMNIMAX dome downtown, which is quite impressive to watch but has rather cramped seating arrangements. I wear size 13 shoes, and have to keep my big feet turned to the side the entire time as to not constantly kick the chair in front of me. So, I do not go there often. The last time was to see the abbreviated version of Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones in 2002.

Anyway, I was thrilled when I saw that my local Regal (I live in the suburbs) was opening an IMAX screen just in time for the premiere of Star Trek. I happily paid the $15 per ticket, because IMAX is supposed to have 4,800 square feet worth of screen for your immersive-viewing pleasure. Star Trek on a screen six to eight stories tall? Count me in.

That is not quite how my experience turned out, though. I avoided reviewing the film as Star Trek: The IMAX Experience because I did not feel like I had the IMAX experience. I walked into this so-called “IMAX” theater and was immediately disappointed. Bones’ words in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country rang in my head: “I think we’ve been had.”

Rather than a 4,800 square-foot monster screen, I found that it was basically a normal-sized movie screen (somewhere around 1,250 square feet) – which is actually much smaller than the standard movie screens I grew up with as a kid, before multiplexes became the norm with their downsized screens.

Turns out that I had allowed Regal to dupe me. Screen downsizing has even struck IMAX. What my local Regal had installed was in fact a “Digital IMAX,” which is apparently a clever way of saying “IMAX, but with a small screen.”

Which leaves me to wonder, what is the point?

Sure, the picture was clear, but that hardly makes up for the lack in size. When it comes to watching a movie, size does matter. The audio was nothing to write home about, either. The system sounded like it needed calibrating. While Star Trek was the first film I saw in the new “IMAX Lite,” Regal had already played runs of at least one or two other movies in there, so they should have had the audio kinks worked out.

It appears I am not the only person who had a letdown experience with IMAX Lite. Patrick Goldstein at the Los Angeles Times recently blogged on the subject. (Fellow Star Trek fans, I apologize for the vomit-inducing picture of those stereotypical fans that starts Goldstein’s post, but just scroll past it as fast as you can. The actual text is well worth reading. Some similar fan stereotypes were at my showing here on the East Coast as well.)

The next weekend, I saw Star Trek again. This time in a “normal” theater. The screen size was about the same, the audio was much better, and the tickets were $5 less. (The movie was even better the second time, by the way.)

These days, I am content to watch most movies at home. Star Trek, being an “event movie” for me, was an exception. There was just no way I was going to wait for the Blu-ray release of the first Star Trek movie in 18 years to focus on the classic crew.

A 4,800 square-foot screen would have been something to draw me to the movie theater more often, though. I would have been willing to pay $15 two or three times a month, even if it meant dealing with crowds of teenagers (many of whom leave most of their clothes at home), walking on sticky floors, and overpaying for stale popcorn. In fact, I would probably have paid up to $20 a ticket to experience a 4,800 square-foot movie screen with top-notch video and audio.

As it is, I will continue watching from home more often than not. Sorry, Hollywood.

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Update: I have found an entire blog devoted to this topic, Destroy Fake IMAX. James Peach, the blog’s author, is also maintaining an IMAX or LIEMAX? map over on Google. That way, you will be smarter than me and at least know what you are paying for in advance.