Like rotating skyscraper restaurants, IMAX cinemas are a sign of prosperity. Any city worth its salt must now have an IMAX, it seems, to be taken seriously on the international stage. There are currently 180 of them, the most recent being the BFI London IMAX Cinema, which opened last week.
IMAX, for those who haven’t seen it, is a large-format film enabling the use of huge screens and breathtaking images. IMAX cameras have accompanied numerous crews from US space agency NASA into orbit, and plumbed the depths of the world’s oceans, to capture images of enormous scale and beauty.
They are also incredibly boring. Allowing amateur film-makers access to such expensive equipment seems to result in very grand public information films.
Want to make a boring film about real-life space travel? Allow astronauts to film it. They are too busy learning about physics and driving their Chevrolet Corvettes to pay attention to the finer points of cinema.
The lack of anything decent to watch on the IMAX must be its main drawback. The BFI will open its screenings with a specially commissioned, but frankly lame, short film by ex-Monty Python man Terry Jones. Featuring John Cleese, it is about as entertaining as a Sainsbury’s TV ad. But longer.
A space movie shown at the launch featured an excruciating voice over from Star Trek veteran Leonard Nimoy. It is easy to imagine the actor cringing as he saw the dumber-than-dumb script. And, while the exterior shots of the Space shuttle were stunning, the pace of the film would have benefited from being cranked up a few warp factors. The most shocking aspect was to discover that hi-tech space craft make extensive use of tin foil and canvas in their construction.
There is also a 3D underwater exploration movie. “Very nice. If you like fish,” commented one viewer.
There are 130 films which fit the IMAX projectors, and most appear to take science, natural history and “destination” as their subjects. But, people do watch these films, in droves. The BFI predicts that 500 000 viewers will visit the cinema in its first year. It will be helped by its excellent location. The cinema is one minute’s walk from either Waterloo International Station or the South Bank, but the building itself is something of a disappointment.
From a passing train, the hi-tech glass structure, designed by Avery Associates, looks clean and uncluttered. And its site, in what was a notorious rabbit warren of pedestrian underpasses, has improved beyond measure. As well as cleaning up the area the cinema has created enough pedestrian traffic to change its character.
But inside, the building appears bland. The main reception area is anonymous, and the larger first-floor area where viewers can gather before a screening is just a large and empty, albeit oddly-shaped room.
There didn’t appear to be much in the way of signs. Visitors, for example, were confused by a sudden urge on behalf of staff to issue large and amusing spectacles to everybody. They were 3D glasses as it turned out, but a simple sign would have saved a lot of questions.
Design doesn’t appear to have played its full role here but builders were still toiling behind the scenes when the cinema opened, so a later visit may tell a different story. Let’s just hope the films do, too.