IMAX versions deliver the really big picture, audiences

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In case you've never seen it, the theater is really big. Make that: Biiiig. It's more like an auditorium--a really wide auditorium. But of course it has to be. It's an IMAX theater.

It's not purely pretentious style that dictates the all-caps spelling. There's an acronym there: Image MAXimum. Walk into any of the four IMAX cinemas in the Chicago area, and you'll find that they're not kidding about the maximum part, though it applies to the sound as well as the image.

When you live in a skyscraper-filled city, an IMAX screen probably isn't enough to make your jaw drop, but there's no denying it's an impressive sight. On a recent visit to the Navy Pier location, my 7-year-old godson Charlie offered this enthusiastic instant review as he first entered the theater: "Wow, that screen is gigantic!"

In a society seemingly convinced that bigger is better (think Humvee, big-screen TV, "Super Size Me!"), it makes sense that IMAX carries a huge advantage. Although "The Polar Express" endured mediocre reviews last month and suffered a very weak opening nationwide, "The Polar Express" in IMAX 3-D is another story. It broke IMAX records, selling out its first two weekends--and, as I discovered, its third weekend as well. The day after Thanksgiving, when I attended Navy Pier's earliest matinee with my godson, the line for the sold-out show was a good 15 minutes long--and that was just for people picking up tickets bought ahead of time. Lesson: Order in advance, then arrive early.

During that post-Thanksgiving Day weekend, "The Polar Express" achieved a pretty remarkable turnaround nationwide, marking a 24 percent increase in box office totals over the previous week. (Would-be blockbusters that open as widely as "Express" typically post a decline each week following their opening.) It's possible those biiiig crowds at the IMAX theaters helped fuel the enthusiastic word-of-mouth necessary for the film to make the about-face.

The arrival of "The Polar Express" in IMAX theaters marks a cinematic first, something only recently possible. Never before has a conventional 35 mm film been adapted into an IMAX 3-D format for simultaneous release. But even if it were a two-dimensional screening, the IMAX experience guarantees greater interest among cinemagoers. "Our movies have legs--they tend to play longer," said Greg Foster, chairman and president of IMAX Films Entertainment. "We usually try to have about a 6- to 8-week run."

So how does the magic happen? State-of-the-art technology. It starts with the film format, called 15/70. Technically, "it's a 70 mm film with 15 perforations per frame," Foster said. In lay terms: "That means it's a bigger piece of film, which allows for more light and therefore more capture of image to transfer through our projector and onto our screens. It means that the blues are a little bluer and the reds are a little redder. The image is bigger, and the clarity is crystal-clear."

"The comparison I usually use," said Kathryn Chapman, manager of the Museum of Science and Industry's Omnimax cinema, "is that a 35 mm frame is approximately the size of a postage stamp. A 15/70 frame is the size of a playing card."

With a movie as visually grand as "Polar Express," bigger really is better. Young Charlie delighted in a harrowing scene in which the runaway train careens down a ravine. "That was hilarious!" he blurted after the climax. Meanwhile, my pulse raced during the sequence where a precious ticket takes its own wind-blown trip through the North Pole, abetted by wolf packs and birds of prey. But folks who get queasy on roller coasters might opt to stay home (or at least be prepared to close their eyes).

As far as the 3-D factor goes, to be honest, it wasn't hugely impressive. Aside from a few snowflakes--and one especially great shot when the nose of the train looks like it just might hit your own nose--there was more 3-D bang for the buck in the animated short, "Santa vs. the Snowman." (Note, however, the "versus" in the title: There's a rather unattractive war theme, especially odd for a Christmas movie. Of course, Charlie enjoyed it.)

The films can be seen throughout December at Navy Pier's IMAX as well as at two suburban locations, Lincolnshire and Woodridge. For a giant-screen experience with less escapist fare, you have to visit the very first IMAX screen built in Chicago, the 18-year-old Omnimax. There you can see a variety of non-fiction films, all 60 minutes or less, such as the awesome "Forces of Nature," which documents volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes; or "Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West," a National Geographic-produced narrative re-creation of the duo's pioneering quest 200 years ago.

But what really sets the Museum of Science and Industry's cinema apart from its three area cohorts is not its programming but its shape: The screen is curved, like a dome. It provides a more impressive experience than the flat IMAX screens because it wraps well around your field of vision.

Though the visual experience is markedly out of the ordinary, "the projection technique is pretty much the same," said Chapman, whose Omnimax career began about nine years ago when she worked as a projectionist. "The only difference between a 2-D projector for a flat screen and a 2-D projector for a dome screen is the lens," she said. "We put in a fisheye lens to make up for the distortion of the screen. That's about it."

Actually, there is one other difference from the IMAX experience, but it's purely cosmetic, a fun extra that's probably more interesting to adults and bigger kids than to the little ones. At the Omnimax, you see the projection equipment in use as you wait to enter the auditorium: Huge strips of film run about 18 feet up to the projector, which travels back down to floor level on an elevator for reloading between screenings.

Regardless of the specifics of the IMAX experience--in multiplex or in an institution, flat screen or dome, 2D or 3D--it certainly won't feel like just another afternoon at the movies. Best of all, as oversized indulgences go, IMAX is guilt-free. No worries about guzzling too much gas or packing on too many greasy pounds. Just sit back and enjoy.

IMAX locations:

Museum of Science& Industry Omnimax5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago773-684-1414Opened in 1986Size of screen: Dome, 76 feet in diameter.

Navy Pier IMAX Theatre600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago312-595-5629Opened in 1995Size of screen: 80 feet wide by 60 feet high.

Regal Lincolnshire Stadium 20 & IMAX300 Parkway Drive, Lincolnshire847-229-9100Opened in 1998Size of screen: 80 feet wide by 60 feet high

Cinemark IMAX Theatreat Seven Bridges6500 Illinois Highway 53, Woodridge630-434-2629Opened in 2000Size of screen: 70 feet wide by 50 feet high.

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