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Larger than life

Before the Imax movie started the other night at the Museum of Science and Industry, they turned on the lights behind the screen, and you could see right through it to 72 speakers that were staring back at you like the eyes of a science-fiction monster. Then the movie began, flooding the eyes with images.

Both of the giant-screen processes, Imax and Omnimax, use screens that are five stories high. You sit fairly close to them in steeply-ranked rows of seats, and are engulfed in the experience. Your eyes are surrounded by images, and your ears are surrounded by sound. Because there are so many big speakers, there's no need to force the volume; the sound is an strong authoritative presence, like in the real world.

I like these big movies. They are not feature films and in a sense they aren't documentaries, either. They're spectacles. A showman like Mike Todd, who backed Cinerama, would have loved them. So do audiences. There are now nearly a hundred theaters showing films in one process or the other, and they are doing good business.

At the Museum of Science and Industry, where a new Imax film named "The Fires of Kuwait" has just opened, the late shows of the amazing Rolling Stones documentary, "At the Max," are in their eighth months and will run through June.

I've seen six of the big movies: The NASA footage of the conquest of space and the moon landing; "Antarctica," with its astonishing footage shot by divers in the frigid, ghostly waters inside an iceberg; "Ring of Fire," about the chain of volcanoes and earthquake zones ringing the Pacific; a misconceived, Eurocentric view of the "discovery" of Polynesia; the Rolling Stones movie, and now "The Fires of Kuwait."

The films tend to deny criticism. I disliked the Polynesian movie because it seemed to imply that all of Polynesia's pre-history was simply on hold, awaiting the arrival of European explorers and missionaries (who brought diseases that almost wiped out their Polynesian hosts). The others were, in one way or another, quite simply inspiring.

Mick Jagger said he had never properly seen a Rolling Stones concert until he saw "At the Max," which I think is the greatest rock and roll concert film ever made. The space documentaries took footage that looked ordinary on television and made it awesome: When Neil Armstrong takes his "one small step," the horizon of the Moon reaches out in all directions, and the cold limitless abyss of space is his umbrella.

"The Fires of Kuwait," directed by David Douglas and shot on location, perilously close to the hellish fire and smoke of hundreds of burning oil wells, also came as a revelation. The sheer angry power of the blazing wells doesn't come across on TV or on pictures. You have to be there. With Imax, you are.

I'd already seen an earlier Kuwait documentary, "Lessons of Darkness," which the German director Werner Herzog shot for the Discovery Channel. I don't know how it looked on TV, but when I saw it last year at the Telluride Film Festival it was an unforgettable experience. Herzog of course does not make conventional documentaries, and there was no narration to explain what was happening. Only apocalyptic music, and Biblical quotations that evoked the end of the world. The men seemed so pitifully puny compared to the raging force of nature they had chosen to do battle with.

"The Fires of Kuwait" is more conventional. A narration, read by Rip Torn, gives some facts and figures and explains what's going on. But the words are overwhelmed by the images. We see lakes of burning oil and skies blackened with smoke. We feel the heat and the roaring impact of the flames, and when a Texas crew detonates a dynamite blast to blow out a fire, the sound slaps us like a physical assault.

There are strange visions in this one. One of the strangest is a Rube Goldberg contraption brought over by the Hungarians to blow out fires. Starting with the largest model of Russian-made battle tank, they replaced the gun mountings with two jet engines, cannibalized from MIGs. The armored beast lumbers into range and digs in, and then the jets roar, their exhaust filled with thousands of gallons of water. The fire goes out.

Other fires are extinguished by using cranes to lower big pipes over the wellheads, so that the flame can be separated from its fuel. Tons of water are used to cool the fires and their surrounding areas. We learn that the most hazardous moments are right after a fire is extinguished; the fire-fighters must work in an area that could suddenly ignite and kill them, and at least three men did die that way. The scope of the Kuwait fires is unimaginable. A helicopter lifts the camera so we can see blackened desert sand as far as the key can see. The horizon is a ring of hellfire. The enormity of the crime staggers the imagination.

Walking out of the theater, I wondered what else could be done with Imax and Omnimax films. (The difference between the two processes is that Omnimax films are projected on the inside of a huge dome, while Imax uses a flat screen.) Last December during the Hawaii Film Festival I visited the projection booth of the new Omnimax theater on Wakiki Beach, and was surprised by its size. It looked more like the command deck of the Starship Enterprise.

A print of a film costs tens of thousands of dollars, and rests on a platter the size of a very large round table. The length of the films is limited to about 45 minutes by the capacity of the projectors. "At the Max" uses two reels, and has an intermission while the projectionists wrestle the second one into place. A standard two-hour feature is unthinkable at this point.

The Imax and Omnimax people can live with that, because their thinking is that a conventional story film wouldn't work in the format. They cite two problems: (1) The closeups would give us human faces five stories high, at which point even Tom Cruise might begin to look like the Dough Boy in "Ghostbusters," and (2) quick dramatic cutting between shots so disorients the audience that some people get nauseous. (In all giant-screen films, most of the cuts begin and end with dissolves).

If these big movies are limited to spectacles, that's all right with me. In the computer world, they talk about the new science of "virtual reality," in which our senses are all enveloped by a movie or a video game so that we seem to be inside it, having the experience ourselves. I know what that feels like. Ask me anything you want to know about what it was like, putting out those fires.

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