America Wild and the state of IMAX today

IMAX is strange for a cinema that still exists today. While it may boast the highest quality image from capture to projection, no matter how many Christopher Nolan films are shot on their 70mm stock, IMAX still treats itself like a novelty. When looking at the main slate of IMAX shot films that are released in IMAX cinemas you find most of them are relatively short one dimensional promises of spectacle and not a lot else. America Wild is one of those.

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The film begins with a Teddy Roosevelt quote “It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it” which fades to black, hold for a second, before we fade in to “SUBARU: PROUD SPONSOR OF THE AMERICAN NATIONAL PARKS” and it begins.

Directed by Greg MacGillivray and filmed with IMAX 65mm film stock, America Wild, with the help of Robert Redford as narrator, takes you across the National Parks of America. The pictures are gorgeous, when all the film does is take a helicopter through canyons and mesas and over forests and mountains I wished it wouldn’t dare cut to anything else.

The film only ran for 45 minutes and yet a disappointing amount of the film was spent on shallow and painfully cute scenes of an All-American family of thrill seekers. Shots of actual landscapes rarely saw powerful use of 3D and I guess how could they? When the scenes where the 3D effect are most pronounced are an All American family of thrill seekers loading up their SUV (A Subaru SUV, of course), singing in their SUV, sleeping in their SUV, you have to ask: What’s the point?

The problem with the family only gets worse when later on, towards the end of the film, one of the three explorers explains a backstory that if handled more artfully could have been moving, or more importantly, could have helped drive the film. Instead, the film treats them not as characters or people, but as placeholders for the audience and that works to its detriment.

The film makes a good case for talented writing in documentary filmmaking. America Wild makes it clear that it’s no accident why Ken Burns, David Attenborough and Werner Herzog are where they are. They know how to engage an audience in a story. This film instead latches onto the same spectacle-or-nothing approach as what gave the Lumiere Brothers their string of hits in the 1890’s, the big difference being that the Lumiere films such as Baby’s Breakfast and Bathing in the Sea were roughly 45 seconds long as opposed to 45 minutes.

IMAX is, along with the Drive-In, part of a dying breed, a place where it’s primarily about not what’s being shown but where it’s being shown. Like the early days of cinema, IMAX relies on the belief that people will go to see IMAX simply because it’s IMAX. It’s been like that since I was a kid, and probably even longer. But for all IMAX’s boasting of higher image detail I have to be honest and say it didn’t hold up. It didn’t help that I ended up with a crummy set of 3D Glasses that were foggy around the edge (also not helped, all fault my own, by my embarrassing inability to clean glasses) but when I looked closely what I had thought was light film grain was in fact the actual texture of the cinema screen itself. I wasn’t sitting particularly close, I tend to try and stick to middle-centre no matter what cinema I’m in, and yet I was seeing the actual texture of the screen the image was projected on. That’s not something I’ve ever encountered before and I couldn’t stop looking at it. I don’t know whether that’s because the screen was in need of a clean or perhaps something worse. Maybe instead of a new laser projection system, IMAX Melbourne needed a new screen installed.

I can’t think of any reason for the film to have been shot and shown in 3D other than as a potential crowd draw, the shots of landscapes, while gorgeous, are too wide to really make much of the 3D effect, and the shots where it’s most prominent, of the thrill seeker trio’s campsite antics, serve no purpose. In the end, the film feels less like a call-to-action to protect the National Parks, or an engrossing exploration of them, but instead more like an extended director’s cut of a Subaru SUV ad.

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Tom May

Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and essayist with a vast knowledge of video games, film and Thomas Pynchon. He has recently completed his Advanced Diploma in Film & Television at Footscray City Films. 

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