Destination Film: Indiana State Museum IMAX - The Force Awakens

Our latest movie destination is the massive Indiana State Museum IMAX Theater.

When I first learned of Star Wars: The Force Awakens partially being shot in IMAX 15/70, it was around the time of the startlingly wide IMAX 70mm and standard 70mm releases of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.  Needless to say I was intrigued by the possibilities it presented for Star Wars and what it would or wouldn't do for the renewed interest in the production and projection of high resolution celluloid prints.  To my dismay, however, I learned recently the closest IMAX theater to me with an IMAX 15/70 projector is planning to convert to digital and do away with film for good.  To make matters worse, an extremely limited amount (15 to be exact) of IMAX 15/70 prints were struck for 2D exhibition with even fewer theaters showing them and prior plans to project the film in 3D using two 15/70 prints running simultaneously were ultimately scrapped.  Luckily there was one IMAX 15/70 theater nearest to me at the Indiana State Museum which just happened to be one of the few in the world that would in fact be playing Star Wars: The Force Awakens on a celluloid 15/70 print.  Thus began what would become my latest movie destination, bringing yours truly on a 5 hour journey from his hometown to get a rare firsthand experience of what is arguably the highest quality presentation of the new Star Wars film ever produced.  

Upon entering the Indiana State Museum, I was greeted by a large hanging poster for The Force Awakens boasting the exclusive 15/70 presentation not unlike the 70mm IMAX posters hung outside the Henry Ford IMAX theater for Interstellar.  The museum itself consisted of three floors with ornate interior design and numerous exhibits including but not limited to natural history, American history, videogame history and even a skateboard history room.  On the first floor was the IMAX theater which was adorned with Star Wars themed decor including a massive mural of the Millennium Falcon affixed to the theater entrance.  After hours of driving and a long wait before showtime, patrons were finally allowed into the theater which proved to be the largest IMAX theater screen I've ever seen.  Imagine the Henry Ford IMAX theater only four times as large with even more seating and a far more polished projection system.  Having seen as many films at the Henry Ford within the past year as I have, I was stunned at how much bigger the Indiana State Theater IMAX screen was by comparison.  Before the film began, the theater manager informed the audience they were about to see one of fifteen authentic 70mm celluloid prints circulating the world and that the presentation would be extremely special.  Moments later the projector fired up and the film unspooled.  

Without spoiling anything, the image and sound quality was immaculate and easily the largest movie screen I've ever seen a film of any kind on and the 1.44:1 IMAX footage in full uncompressed 15/70 looked truly impressive.  That said, it's easy to understand having seen the film why so few authentic celluloid prints were struck for this.  Unlike Interstellar which seemed to sport scene after scene of 15/70 footage, The Force Awakens only contained one sequence in this format with the rest of the film shot in 35mm blown up to 2.20:1 for 15/70 projection as opposed to the wider 2.35:1 35mm aspect ratio.  While the presentation was undoubtedly the highest quality in the world, to only shoot one sequence in a 2 1/2 hour film in 15/70 didn't make a whole lot of sense in hindsight.  Considering J.J. Abrams tweeted a photograph of an IMAX camera looking over a desert with the hashtag #bestformatever, along with a cover story on Interstellar promising use of the format on The Force Awakens, you would have thought the format would have got more use than it did.  In any event, the much-discussed single IMAX sequence was indeed a treat to behold uncompressed and I feel lucky to have seen the film for the first time in this way.  

I suppose it's not unlike Return of the Jedi which was largely shot in 35mm with select 70mm visual effects shots and the previous two Star Wars films were essentially 35mm blow-ups.  Back in the day, the main appeal behind 35mm blow-ups besides marginally sharper image quality and the ability to project it on a larger screen was the 6-track sound previously unavailable on 35mm.  If you saw Star Wars in 1977 on a 70mm print, chances are it had immersive 6-track surround sound where general release 35mm prints resorted to mono sound instead.  In rare cases like The Empire Strikes Back, the 70mm version itself was edited slightly differently than the general release 35mm version.  For instance, when Darth Vader calls to Luke Skywalker on the Falcon, it fades in between the two characters in 35mm but in the 70mm version it simply cut between the two.  This version has never been released on home video but it was shown in theaters before the 35mm version became the definitive home video cut.  

In hindsight, I will say The Force Awakens in 15/70 at the Indiana State Museum was an exhilarating sensory experience and I'm glad to have seen it in the highest technical quality possible despite Disney sacrificing 3D in the process and only making use of the 15/70 technology once.  The theater itself was a wonder to behold given it's enormity over other IMAX theaters I've attended over the years and the pristine image quality was magnificent.  Unlike Interstellar which gave viewers so much 15/70 footage it truly was an IMAX experience, The Force Awakens has so little in it that it felt like a tease.  Yes it did look incredible and the Millennium Falcon set has never looked this immersive before in any medium, but when it was over I kept waiting for more IMAX sequences which never came.  Despite my affinity for 70mm film and being able to say I was one of the few who ventured out to see it in this format, with The Force Awakens it's a little superfluous and begs the question why J.J. Abrams chose the format for this sequence at all if he wasn't going to use it again for the rest of the movie.  What's more, the much touted sequence comes near the beginning and the rest of it is in standard widescreen, making you wonder why it wasn't saved for the climax.  As for the film itself, there really isn't anything I can say that hasn't already been said other than that being among the few who can say they saw it in 15/70, it could have and should have used the high-end film format more than it did.

-Andrew Kotwicki