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The Charlotte Observer, N.C., Lawrence Toppman column: Imaxed out on sound and fury [The Charlotte Observer, N.C.]
[August 16, 2009]

The Charlotte Observer, N.C., Lawrence Toppman column: Imaxed out on sound and fury [The Charlotte Observer, N.C.]

(Charlotte Observer (NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 16--My college psychology professor asked the class under what circumstances a Sunkist orange would be blue. We couldn't think of any. So he said, "There's no such thing as 'orange' -- the color is just a concept society has agreed upon. If everyone agreed to call the color of that fruit blue, then it would be blue. Then the sky might be called orange." I thought of that wisdom when I visited the Imax theaters -- or, as one reader insisted in an e-mail, the "Imax" theaters -- that have opened at Stonecrest and Concord Mills. The reader wanted those quotation marks because he was upset that the new generation of Imax screens has been installed in theaters built for conventional exhibitions.

That under-the-radar controversy intensified this year, as Imax licensed its name to more and more theaters in Regal and AMC multiplexes.

Imax (short for "Image Maximum") got its start at Expo '67 in Montreal with a multi-projector system, then debuted a usable single-projector system at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan.

The company became famous for erecting massive, purpose-built screens that were as much as five stories high (Imax) or set on vast domes (Omnimax) that filled the viewer's entire field of vision. Discovery Place acquired its Omnimax dome in 1991 and has been wowing people since, though certain Hollywood releases haven't always worked well on that curved shape.

But new Imax theaters are mostly conversions of existing venues. Where the brand once represented only screens that might be 7,500 square feet, it now includes theaters that may be half that size or less -- yet the ticket price is still $5 higher.

Now, the company can legally assign the name "Imax" to anything, from the walls of the Grand Canyon to the side of a lunchbox. And common sense says that a flat roof line means we're not getting the old-style Imax. The new screens are noticeably different from those in ordinary theaters -- taller and wider, less like long horizontal rectangles -- but the selling point is not grandeur as much as clarity of image and sound.

So is the 50 percent surcharge worth the cost? Well ... that's a question you'll have to answer for yourself. But I can give you an unequivocal "sort of." My first experience was "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" at Concord Mills. I detected the aural difference of "12,000 watts of digital surround sound!" right away.

The metallic clankings of Decepticons seemed like a squadron of tanks sneaking up behind me. Machine guns erupted at once from all corners of the room. A Decepticon smashed a crater in the ground, and sound waves entered my body through toes and teeth.

The images were substantially clearer than in the non-digital version playing in an adjacent non-Imax room. I had a much more defined view of Megan Fox in hot pants (a plus) and director Michael Bay's favorite joke, animals having carnal knowledge (not a plus).

(An aside: Neither theater checked to see if I went into the Imax version or the regular one. Crowds were almost evenly divided between Imax and non-Imax at both places.) I had a different experience at Stonecrest, where I watched "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in 3-D. (Well, partly in 3-D. A blinking red light told us to drop our glasses after the opening sequence, and the film didn't go back to 3-D for as long as I stayed, about another 45 minutes. And certain seats were marked "not for 3-D viewing" because of the inappropriate focal angle.) Now I could understand all the asides the mumbling British actors tossed away, which I hadn't deciphered at my first screening. Sure enough, when I stepped next door to a non-Imax print, the sound seemed slightly muffled and the image less sharply defined again.

To a guy who's still watching a 32-inch cathode ray TV at home, the difference would be worth $5 only on rare occasions, mainly when I wanted my senses assaulted. But the difference in presentation is obvious after only a moment.

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