Friday, April 23, 2010

Hubble 3D: The final frontier

Hubble 3D (2010) • View trailer for Hubble 3D
Five stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.23.10

For sheer mind-boggling spectacle, the IMAX space films always have taken the best advantage of the giant-format screen and sound system.

While not wanting to snub the many other IMAX documentaries  most particularly 1998's Everest, which set the bar pretty high more than a decade ago  the various undersea efforts, freighted as they often are with reproachful environmental messages, have started to suffer from a serious case of same-old, same-old.
Neither words nor this flat image can begin to do justice to the overwhelming
majesty of Hubble 3D; it's true sensory overload. This experience won't ever
be reproduced in a home theater environment; only the size, sound, scope and
jaw-dropping dimensionality of an IMAX house can do it justice. Repeat
viewings are inevitable.

Not so the space films.

Never the space films.

And the newest, Hubble 3D, is simply breathtaking. Amazing. Astonishing.

If James Cameron's Avatar has become the benchmark by which all future 3D sci-fi epics will be judged, then Hubble 3D certainly does the same for documentaries. Never before has James T. Kirk's "space ... the final frontier" been depicted with such stunning camerawork, or with such dramatic heft.

Yep, drama. No other word describes the emotional impact afforded by this up-close-and-personal glimpse of God's heavens.

Writer/director Toni Myers' film has a story, of sorts: the evolution and initial 1990 orbital placement of the massive Hubble space telescope, followed by the immediate need to fine-tune its innards during subsequent shuttle missions. I'm not sure what's more impressive: the fact that we got that beast up there in the first place, or the fact that space-walking astronauts were able to repair and improve its functions as necessary.

And then the situation hits an eye-widening crisis, as recounted by narrator Leonardo DiCaprio (and his line readings are superb). Due to budgetary concerns and yet another glitch in the Hubble's performance  a warped lens had severely compromised the massive telescope's abilities  NASA and Congress came within a hair's breadth of allowing this technological marvel to reach the point of no return via orbital decay, after which it would have become who knows how many chunks of flaming space junk during atmospheric re-entry.

The mind doth boggle.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and in May 2009 the space shuttle Atlantis (mission STS-125) blasted off for one final last-ditch repair assignment; that endeavor forms the bulk of this IMAX film.

The work, faithfully recorded by these giant-format cameras, is painstaking to a degree we Earth-bound mortals can't possibly fathom, with space-suited astronauts forced to wedge themselves into the Hubble's gadget-laden guts, and trade out numerous delicate parts  replacing gyroscopes, batteries and adding insulation panels, among other upgrades  under circumstances akin to threading a needle while wearing oven mitts.

The hazards are twofold: The slightest bump against the Hubble's delicate array of lenses and processors would have ruined the telescope completely; alternatively, the razor-edged circuit boards were capable of slicing through a space suit sleeve or glove.

Despite knowing the outcome of this mission  after all, we've continued to enjoy Hubble photographs to this day  the suspense is palpable.

And the result ... oh, goodness.

Thanks to the Hubble's size and state-of-the-art technology, and the absence of atmospheric distortion, and the telescope's stunning depth of focus, we can embark on what DiCaprio enthusiastically dubs "true space travel" ... and he ain't lyin'.

Never has the IMAX 3D process been used to better advantage. With DiCaprio serving as an off-camera tour guide, we take what feels like an actual trip through the distant cosmos: a fully dimensional voyage that takes place as stars and other space stuff slide past us  above us, below us  while we move ever closer to celestial phenomena such as the Orion and Helix nebulas, and, in another direction, neighboring Andromeda and the Virgo Cluster, home to 2,000 galaxies, where we literally witness the birth of solar systems and the death of stars.

Cloud-like formations on a scale we can't begin to process seem to shimmer and shift as we move past them, solar "winds" changing their configurations just enough to be noticed.

This miracle of simulated space travel was achieved by combining Hubble's raw data of the same objects captured with different telescopic instruments, then layering the images to give them depth and texture in a manner that simulates a realistic, "fly-through" effect.

You've never, ever experienced anything like this before.

A visit to an average planetarium is gonna seem awfully lackluster from now on.

Hollywood make-believe has been in a race with space program technology since movies began. On screen, we reached the moon as early as 1902; such trips became fairly common in the post-WWII years, spearheaded by genre classics such as 1950's Destination Moon. Then, as Mercury and Apollo began to send back actual outer space footage, their grainy cinematography couldn't compete with fictitious trips taken in the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running.

It got worse in the wake of Star Wars, and for a time it seemed as though fabricated CGI storylines would forever eclipse the real thing.

No more.

NASA couldn't have dreamed up a better recruitment tool than this film. Kirk's "new life and new civilizations" never seemed so close ... or so likely. Given the sheer vast numbers of galaxies, stars and solar systems involved, how could there not be Life Out There?

And if they have their own Hubble-esque telescopes, and their own giant-screen film experiences ... might they be viewing our own solar system with similar awe and wonder?

A sobering thought.

Local IMAX fans fortunate enough to have attended this film's April 8 preview at Sacramento's Esquire IMAX theater received the additional treat of a short talk by space shuttle astronaut Stephen K. Robinson, who grew up in Sacramento and the Bay Area, attended UC Davis and completed his master's degree and doctorate work at Stanford.

The impressively engaging Robinson, a born raconteur, discussed and showed a short film of his recent mission  STS-130, aboard the shuttle Endeavour  which sent him to the international space station, where a new "viewing module" was attached and put into service. The shuttle and its payload took off on Feb. 8 and returned on Feb. 21.

Among the many other fascinating informational nuggets that Robinson shared with his audience, he discussed how difficult it can be, after weeks in space, to get one's "land legs" back on Earth.

Inevitably, while answering questions and on a much more prosaic note, he briefly explained how one uses a bathroom in zero gravity.

It's difficult to imagine deliberately retiring the Hubble, and yet that will take place at some point during the next several years. The reason: the upcoming 2014 launch of Hubble's successor, the James Webb Telescope, designed to examine the earliest portions of the universe by focusing on objects so old that their light has shifted into the infrared range.

I'm sure IMAX cameras will be along for that ride.

And, as a result, so will we.

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