Friday, March 19, 2010

Movie review: 'Imax Hubble 3D' reaches for the stars but ultimately fails


Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

The daring mission by astronauts to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009 is the perfect subject for a brilliant, thrilling 3-D Imax movie. Such a movie, alas, has yet to be made.

Instead, NASA, Imax and Warner Bros. have teamed up to produce a visually dazzling, entertaining, but disjointed and underachieving film, "Imax Hubble 3D," now playing at the National Air and Space Museum.

Such a film is probably the closest most of us will ever get to being in space. We see the great observatory floating above a slowly spinning planet, the 3-D footage tempting us to reach out and touch the telescope. The footage from orbit of the Hawaiian islands is worth the trip to the theater.

But director Toni Myers has crammed two different movies into a single 40-minute extravaganza. The first is an astronaut documentary, with candid shots of life in zero-G (nice work rolling that burrito, dude). The second is an astronomy movie, a tour of the cosmos that relies heavily on computer-processed imagery. Each has its charms. Paired, they get in each other's way.

The breathtaking footage in orbit has been married to a script that seems to have been purchased off the shelf at Wal-Mart. No cliche was left behind on this mission. In case we're not sufficiently impressed by the derring-do, we're told what to conclude: "Each one of these men and women is a true hero." Show, don't tell, please.

Worse, the movie somehow manages to be less dramatic than the mission many of us witnessed in real time. (I covered the repair mission for The Post.) Consider the famous incident with the stuck bolt. Astronauts John Grunsfeld and Andrew Feustel tried to remove an old camera and replace it with a new one costing upward of $100 million, but a bolt wouldn't budge. The old camera was stuck. Grunsfeld has said that this was the lowest moment of his life. Feustel had to calculate precisely how much force to put on the bolt without shearing it. He succeeded, finally, and the day was saved. Yes, it's in the movie, but the scene goes by in a flash and the viewer never fully understands why it's a big deal.

Ditto for an incident in which astronaut Mike Massimino has to rip a handle off the spacecraft, risking injury or death if a jagged edge cuts his spacesuit. The rushed pace doesn't let the moment breathe.

The computer-enhanced astronomical shots are cool, and I'm told that Hubble scientists vetted everything, but I kept wondering if the universe had undergone some cosmetic improvements. Is the Orion nebula really that colorful? When we're zooming through the galaxy, shouldn't the stars be more pointlike objects, with more empty space in between? I'm no astronomer, but I thought space had a lot more elbow room.

Sure, it's great to see the Hubble up close, in 3-D, as if you're right there in orbit. But it started to give me a headache. I sat at the end of a row in the Imax theater, in what I'm told is not the ideal place to watch, and was bothered during parts of the movie by poor registration and some ghosting in the imagery. "Blurry" is not an adjective you want applied to a movie whose key selling point is its visuals.

Maybe they can get an astronaut in there to fix that.

** G. At the National Air and Space Museum downtown. Contains nothing objectionable. 40 minutes.

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