The Trouble With 70 MM…

I went to my screening of Interstellar tonight in San Francisco, 70 glorious analog millimeters of Matthew McConaughey’s golden visage, oh man, it was going to be so sweet. My body was ready for “The IMAX Experience® featuring 15 perf/70mm film projection which combines the brightest, clearest images at almost 10 times the resolution of standard projection formats, with powerful, laser-aligned digital sound and customized theatre geometry to create the world’s most immersive movie experience!” hell yes, get in my pupils!

This job has some fine perks, but perhaps none so perky as being able to see an IMAX film early, for free, in a massive auditorium closed off to the public, with 80% of the seats empty. It’s like having two rows to yourself on a 747, or an entire floor in a hotel. You want to skip down the empty aisles, reveling in your privilege.

And for a while, the experience delivered (as for the film, I’m still embargoed). Then, at the climactic moment, the sound cut out. At first I thought it was part of the film, a POV effect, no sound in space and all of that. There had been parts without audio earlier in the film. And it does have a dramatic effect, that massive screen filled with furious space action and frantically yelling characters and all you can hear is the whirring of the projector (which is surprisingly loud, actually), and the occasional cough of some asthmatic film critic. Until it became clear that this was some kind of projector malfunction and the screen went dark and the film publicist came in to say that they were fixing it.

It was the first of many such announcements. The next one said that they were fixing the audio system and it would be back up, but that since the movie was was on actual film reels, they couldn’t just rewind. So those 2-5 minutes we watched without audio (which, again, were at the climax of the movie) would just be lost, at least for now.

Remember that video of the guy splicing together 48 separate reels on a massive platter?

Yeah, I can imagine that being a pain in the ass to stop and restart. Or to try to respool and cue. The next announcement was that it was going to be 15 minutes more to get the sound up, and that once the film started, it would start where we left off. First with no sound, they said, then with un-synched sound, but eventually with properly synched sound.

About 20 minutes after the initial stoppage, the film started again, in the midst of the climactic moment, first with no sound, then with halting sound from at least 30 minutes earlier in the film. That played for a few minutes, with the critics who most enjoy the sound of their own voices adding their own terrible commentary. If anyone can grumble bitchily, it’s a group of critics. Jesus, I’d take the ice planet over this, I thought, after the fourth “alright alright alright” joke by the same guy. The sync was so far off they just stopped the movie again, telling us to sit tight while they figured out what to do. The guy from the Chronicle paced the back row with his cell phone glued to his ear, discussing his deadline with his editors. Others eagerly resumed droning opinions at each other.

10 minutes after that, they told us that the screening was canceled for the night. At this writing, they’re still figuring out what to do about a make-up screening.

I relate this story to you not only as an excuse for why my Interstellar review might be coming late, but also in the hopes of giving you a greater appreciation for the format. And for the fact that it’s even an option. If there was one thing this evening made clear, it’s that 70 mm isn’t just pretty, it’s a pain in the ass. It explains both why people like Christopher Nolan go to such lengths to try to preserve it, and why some theater owners are so eager to see it go. So yes, I frequently don’t pay for my movies. But for those of you who do and are, know that at least with Interstellar IMAX, they’re really working for it.

[Update: I did eventually see the rest of the movie, just so you know.]