Review #9: First Man: The IMAX Experience

Not every IMAX Experience is the same. There are the actual IMAX theaters, with their screens the size of buildings with a unique, atypically tall aspect ratio. Then, there are the so-called LIEMAX theaters, which have nice, big screens, but they’re basically just better regular theater screens; they cannot show a full IMAX 70mm print in all its vertically intended glory. There are further between IMAX Digital and IMAX Laser projections, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion. Point is: I saw First Man on a proper IMAX screen, the way it was ostensibly intended to be seen.

And now, a slight digression:

I have met First Man’s director, Damien Chazelle, at an after-party following the New York Film Festival premiere of his first film, Whiplash. I was talking about how much I liked the movie to someone else, and he said, “Oh, that guy over there? Hold on.” And then he brought me over. Damien was sitting on a couch talking to two other people and I then interrupted to tell him that his movie was fucking amazing. I asked if I could have a hug and he obliged. He asked my name, and I said it was Alec and he said his was Damien and I said I know, your movie was fucking amazing. Then I walked away.

(Nailed it!)

I found him on Facebook later; I wanted to send him my glowing review of the film, since I’ve found that first-time directors are excited by that kind of thing. We Facebook Messengered briefly. He was very, very nice. He told me to hit him up if I was ever in LA. He has since become an Academy-Award Winning Director. I did not do that on my recent trip. (SNAP)

But this is all to say that I really, really like Damien Chazelle. And he has shown talent enough already that I’ll follow him anywhere. Even the moon.

First Man is a very good film. It’s well-written, well-paced, and well-acted. I know nothing about Niel Armstrong, and this movie will serve as all I’ll ever learn about him; it did not instill in me a fascination with the man, but it invested me in his story for just under two and a half hours. Whether the depiction is “accurate” or not, it felt real. He felt human, like someone who existed outside of the confines of the theater screen. And the world is beautifully rendered, totally nailing the 60s aesthetic – or so believes someone who did not live through that era – and using some of the most effective CGI I’ve ever seen; with a couple of as brief exceptions, I couldn’t see the seams even when I looked for them. I have some quibbles with the camerawork, but we’ll get into those later.

The hard right, genre-wise, that Chazelle took after the widely beloved La La Land is exactly what he needed to do to prove his versatility at this point in his career. Go from the 3ish million dollar indie drama in Whiplash to the 30ish million movie musical in La La Land to now the 60ish million space biopic First Man does so in spades.

One of the perks of the step up in budget was that Chazelle and co could afford to use IMAX 70mm film cameras for the climactic scene on the moon. There’s something mildly frustrating about its prevalence in the marketing, since the sequence doesn’t come until the last half hour or so, but it’s also not like a biopic about Niel Armstrong wasn’t going to have these scenes, so this wasn’t some big twist to be hidden.

Prior to IMAX screenings of Mission Impossible Fallout (4.5 stars), they showed a clip from First Man as well a brief montage of on-moon imagery utilizing the full glory of the screen. So, I knew what to expect on two fronts: the gorgeousness of those epic moon shots and also the shakiness of what would precede it.

Six and a half years ago (oh my gosh…) I wrote about how the first Hunger Games film, which I greatly enjoyed, revealed flaws in the IMAX Experience. The camera moves constantly and intensely. Afterwards, my head hurt. And from that point on, I decided not to take it for granted that the IMAX version of a film would be superior.

First Man complicates this, because the exception has been, of course, films that actually used IMAX cameras. Checking the Wikipedia list of studio films partially shot using in IMAX 70mm – the largest movie film format by a significant margin, I’ve only missed two: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Of the other nine, I think it’s worth noting that hardcore shakycam is a rarity. Seen in the large format, there is only the benefit of the added screen real estate with none of the exhausting downside. First Man isn’t that. The first fifteen to twenty minutes of First Man would be exhausting on a decently sized television. In IMAX, it’s pain-inducing. Any time a ship is doing anything, the camera goes all over the place, particularly in closeups. It definitely succeeds in making you feel like a part of the moment, as the rumbling of the rocket would, one assume, feel like that. But the sheer scale of it will probably make some folks queasy. And it’s not just during the actiony sequences; two characters talking can still look like something from a Bourne film, and though you do get acclimated to it, you never stop being aware of it.

But what about the IMAX itself? Having seen some of it, I knew what to expect but that didn’t make me any less excited to see it again. I have long believed that there is nothing more well suited to such an expansive image than the grandeur of space. Of the Christopher Nolan films with IMAX footage, I believe that Interstellar uses it best because The IMAX Experience is so tied to understanding the enormity of what the characters are doing. Space exploration is a crazy thing. It’s one of the craziest things humanity has ever done, and certainly one of the most impressive. Most of us will never get to experience that; we must do so vicariously: 2001: A Space Oddysey, Gravity, Interstellar. These are films where big is not just better but is vital.

First Man lacks some of this vitality because so little of it takes place in space, and even less is shot in IMAX. Only the moon walk is. *But* the rapid transition from one format to the other is a truly spectacular moment in cinema; someone in the audience literally shouted “WHOA” as it happened, and understandably so. Going back to this concept of enormity, the moment that changes everything is the one where Armstrong leaves the pod. As you’re reminded throughout, the Russians have beat the Americans to every other major milestone; only the moon remains out of reach. So the simple act of going into space, as much as I would have loved to see in full, doesn’t carry nearly the weight that the grand walk does.

And oh so grand. Released footage showing that first step cropped to match the rest of the film shows only a part of that crucial, incredible moment. In the full glory of a four story IMAX theater, you see it all. And it’s like nothing else. Truly, it feels out of this world.

Eight Point Six out of Ten

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