IMAX Movie Review -- L5: First City in Space

by Mike Combs

Not too long ago my wife and I made a trip to Moody Gardens at Galveston, Texas specifically to see an IMAX movie distributed by Sony called "L5: First City in Space".

If you've never seen an IMAX format movie: First a few words about the technology. The film is a 70mm format, and hence has unusual crispness and detail. The screen is enormous (4 stories tall, if I'm not mistaken). The theater itself slopes steeply. The sound system is superb. All of this combines to result in an experience much more realistic and engrossing than a normal format movie. Then, this can all be taken one step further by presenting in 3-D format. The particular method used at Moody Gardens was the glasses with the polarized filters, although some other theaters are using the infrared-controlled LCD shutter glasses. The 3-D effects are genuinely impressive. During a low-altitude fly-over the surface of Mars, the landscape seems to be passing directly underneath your chin!

The plot: Chieko is a little girl living on L5, and we see the colony through her eyes. The voice-over narration is her as an adult. A crisis arises: They need more water for their life-support system (and evidently can't afford to lift it up from Earth). Chieko's grandfather (also Chief Scientist of L5) makes a proposal. There's a comet passing by Jupiter. He advocates attaching a rocket to the comet to make it swing past Jupiter in such a way as to slingshot it around to where it will pass by L5 at regular intervals, and hence can be conveniently mined.

A robot spacecraft implants the rocket. But it won't fire. Chieko's father, Flight Commander Mori, is dispatched to repair the rocket. She is very concerned about him making it back safely, as indeed is everyone. As luck would have it, a solar flare interrupts communications at a critical juncture. When it is restored, Chieko's father is alive, and all is well.

This is a great movie, in addition to being a wonderful introduction to "High Frontier" concepts. The plot is real simple, but then the movie is only about 40 minutes long, so it's the fault of the medium, not the writer. There were the few inevitable science blunders, but they were very minor compared with most other shows set in space. By and large, these people did their research, and got it right.

There was only thing in this movie which I disliked: a brief jaunt into Virtual Reality (VR). Chieko discovers a snowglobe that her mother has bought for her. Later on, she plays with friend on Earth in a simulated reality comprised of the snowglobe, only life-sized with the children inside. Every since "Star Trek: The Next Generation" there seems to have arisen a common belief that no one will want to go into space until there's a magic room that can simulate any reality. I hope not.

I would have far preferred to have seen Chieko ask if it could ever snow in L5, to be told, "No, we could make it cold enough, but there isn't enough water vapor in the air." Then later, after the comet retrieval, and when water is in greater supply, Chieko's grandfather could have arranged for it to snow on Christmas Eve. We could have had a very touching, human scene out of this more-realistic approach. But instead, "L5" chose to jump on the same slippery VR bandwagon that the rest of Hollywood is scrambling over.

But don't get me wrong. This is a truly outstanding movie. The sensory impact of the format will pull you into the story, largly compensating for the simplicity of the plot and characterizations. If you want a view of the High Frontier... this is the best we're going to get for a while.

I hope it's not a long while.

Mike Combs

March, 1997

This page was last updated: 2 November 1997

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