High Expectations
Space Station IMAX 3D
Review by Ross Anthony

I'm a space enthusiast. I'm fascinated by stars and planets, physics, the space program. I've spent plenty a starry night out on the lawn head cocked back, pondering, dreaming, wondering, conjecturing, and simply lapping up the spilt glowy elements of the Milky Way and beyond! I also visit NASA's website for the times and locations that the Space Station swings past my city. I've seen it on several occasions, once even with the shuttle docked. (Though easily visible with the naked eye, it still looks like a bigger star, but it's moving pretty fast -- 17,500 mph.)

So I eagerly anticipated this IMAX 3D presentation, which promises to take us up and inside the International Space Station (ISS).

This documentary style production provides a very general overview of the ISS program. Highlights include astronauts seemingly swimming through the passageways and otherwise hamming it up for the camera inside the ISS. There are also two pretty exciting launches of the ISS cylindrical segments. However, though I generally enjoy Tom Cruise as an actor, his narration on this project feels ineffectively deliberate/emphasized, unpolished and otherwise out of sync with tone of the images on screen.

Other deficiencies: While we learn that the ISS provides a sort of floating laboratory we're not shown any concrete experiments. Crystallization is mentioned, but not even a graphic graces screen. Additionally, in one sequence the filmmakers skillfully peak our curiosity over the personal jet-pack that allows the astronauts to maneuver independently in free space. Yet, when the time comes to actually show it off, we watch the astronaut anticlimactically glide five feet straight ahead without a single turn. Tom attempts to add closure, "It's a success!"

Nearly bogged down in the tin foil wrappings of conventional documentary filmmaking, the natural wonder and majesty of the project finally find their way into film via the glee of space personnel and the fire of the launches.

One rocket rocks the theater, the masterfully mixed audio rumbles surrounding the viewer as dust, debris and earth charge out from the flames and smoke bellowing under the Russian workhorse as the rocket takes to the sky. Likewise, the launch of a space shuttle carrying yet another piece of the ISS puzzle into orbit blasts off its pad and then provides us a pilot's eye view of Earth very quickly falling distant. In fact, I wouldn't mind an entire big screen film solely dedicated to liftoffs. May I propose that project to some LF producer looking for an idea? Even just those two liftoffs make this production worth the admission price.

And then there's the zero gravity meets human fun factor, squarely the meat and potatoes of this bigscreener. Watch them lift several hundred pounds with a single finger, spray water globules onto their bodies to shower, shave, drink. People in space ... that is absolutely a wonder and I love that these folks were considerate enough to drag that huge IMAX 3D camera along so that we can as near as possible be up there with 'em. Btw, there was no Lucas or Cameron on board, so besides being trained to fix and assemble a huge variety of space-hardware, the astronauts learned to use the IMAX cam. And for the most part, they've done a fine job. (Though we didn't see the out-takes.)

Also nicely done: The inclusion of school kids talking to the astronauts on ham radio. Shots of underwater ISS assembly practice. The excellent choice of nostalgic 1900's music to contrast the highest of high tech images.

On the whole, the film is good, but not great ... as I'd hoped (though admittedly, I may have had unreasonably "high" expectations). And though not as thrilling/IMAXy as other LF projects, it still hosts film moments that you can't get anywhere else on Earth (or space) ... hence, I still think it's worth the price.

Here are two way-cool NASA sites that I enjoy using:
  1. This page will give you detailed info on where and when you can view the Space Station pass over your town.

  2. This page shows where the space station is right now ... with real time updates - gives you a good idea of just how fast this thing is whizzing around the planet.


In order to Interview astronaut Susan Helms and DP James Neihouse (click here), I attended the West Coast premier of "Space Station." This afforded me the unusual circumstance of screening the production twice before it released. Since the experiences were not redundant I was faced with a reviewing quandary. Do I stick to my first screening review or do I adapt it with new perspective? Since neither option felt right, I decided to amend. The above review is based on the first screening, below I've added a few points from the premier.

Overall, it got better (narration aside). This time, I sat second row from the front as opposed to 1/2 to 2/3rds up during the first screening. The closeness added greater spark and I felt it realistically appropriate to be cocking my head up to watch a launch. I was able to take in more of the information both visually and verbally, having seen it once before. I also paid greater attention to detail. It's a big project and there is a lot to take in. As far as the experiments, I neglected to mention in the first review an A.I. robotics experiment, which is displayed. Based on the premier showing I may have given this piece an A-. Unfortunately, the average theater-goer won't have the opportunity to talk with Susan and James or experience Dennis Tito's in-person presentation. All of which provided an excellent appetizer to the main course. So, I'm going to stick to the first screening grade, but I will reiterate/emphasize: whether we know about it or not, whether we look up and see it pass over or not, humans are building in space. And just as satellites have revolutionized the way we communicate ... a camera mounted just at the edge of our atmosphere will change the way we view our world. Watching film shot by the privileged few who have lived off of the planet will no doubt impress, educate, and otherwise inspire each of us to treasure and understand the gorgeous blue Earth we live, play and sleep on everyday.

Speaking of Dennis Tito (and the privileged few), he's the billionaire that hitchhiked to space. A thumb, some diplomatic convincing, and 20 million were enough to send him along with the Russians into orbit. "Well worth it" he told us, showing off his laptop slide show (on the big screen) like a neighbor who had just gone to Disney World or Jamaica. The difference... Tito's trip is not only interesting, but fascinating. The first space tourist. Watch him spin in zero gravity, like a little boy on his first pony ride. And his stills of the Earth are artistic and beautiful. I'd strongly recommend Tito (a student of aeronautic design himself) to solidify this presentation on film, narrate it himself, then release it as a sort of pre-presentation short. It's an excellent teaser to "Space Station" and a sharp little piece on its own.

  • Space Station IMAX 3D. Copyright © 2002.
  • Narrated by Tom Cruise.
  • DP: James Neihouse.
  • Writer Toni Myers.
  • Produced by Toni Myers at IMAX Space LTD/LockHeed.


Copyright © 2001. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit: RossAnthony.com

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Last Modified: Saturday, 16-Sep-2006 07:54:08 PDT