Which ‘Avatar’ to see? A look at IMAX, Dolby 3-D, RealD (and, yeah, boring old 2-D)


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Our intrepid correspondent Mark Milian digs into the issue that has lots of moviegoers scratching their heads -- with the different format options, which version of ‘Avatar’ should they go see?

You might have opened the newspaper to find a two-page spread advertising ‘Avatar’ in its many theater formats and wondered what the heck the difference is. There’s the standard non-3-D version (pass!), RealD, Dolby Digital and IMAX. The final three are the leading competitors in the battle to add depth dimension to movie theater screens.


If you’re not lucky enough to live in a major city, like our fair Los Angeles, the (ahem) entertainment capital of the world, you may not have a choice. Some areas are limited to one -- if so it will likely be RealD, which some say is a cheaper investment for theater owners, all things considered.

Dolby boasts some cost benefits, too -- theaters can use the same old white screens (as opposed to the format-dedicated silver screens) allowing them to switch between 2-D and 3-D showings. However, the price of the Dolby glasses can seriously add up. In any case, the throwaway paper glasses of yesteryear are gone.

But really, who cares what they cost theaters to install? Ticket prices are about the same either way -- although IMAX costs a few bucks more. What we want to know is how these technologies actually perform.

I slapped on the glasses in three theaters and weathered seven and a half hours of pinched ears, blurry vision and blue faces to bring you a message from the sky people: I see you and here is what you need to know about the ‘Avatar’ formats...

IMAX 3-D: Of the three names, this is the one you probably know (oh, and you’ve likely heard of Dolby for its sound systems). You can expect a giant screen and the larger-than-life viewing experience that comes with it. IMAX has been doing 3-D for a while -- think cheesy dinosaur movies where giant insects try to attack you and underwater flicks where giant squids, um, try to attack you. Clearly, IMAX knows how to startle you in the third dimension.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that IMAX 3-D is the most intense way to see ‘Avatar.’ Things popping out of the screen feel just a couple feet or, in some cases, several inches out of reach. It’s wowing in the sort of gimmicky way people commonly think about 3-D.

But director James Cameron has been saying all along that this film isn’t meant to be one of those movies in which they’re hitting golf balls at you the whole time (though, come to think of it, that does kind of happen in one scene).

That’s not to say IMAX 3-D is distracting. It’s just the most in-your-face -- sometimes to its detriment with a jarring effect. Because the 3-D popping objects are so exaggerated, they can also be rather blurry. Plants and the tips of arrows can look like blobs at times.

The IMAX glasses are oversized, which is good if you need to fit them on top of eyeglasses. But several people complained about comfort and pinching, and that does matters if you’re sitting down for a two-and-a-half hour movie.

Still, with IMAX, you’re getting the most massive, immersive experience. Plus, it’s the only theater where you’ll get to see the preview for NASA’s 3-D movie due this spring, which drew applause during at least one showing. (Find IMAX theater locations)

Dolby 3D: Sometimes referred to as Digital 3-D or 3-DDolby, this may be the least impressive of the three formats. Granted, the picture quality is very similar to RealD -- maybe even slightly sharper -- but the Dolby glasses are just annoying.

You can tell the glasses are expensive because they assign a worker to stand outside the theater at the end of the movie to guilt you into putting your pair into the bin. Yet, the glasses are comparatively small and narrow -- and uncomfortably so if you need to fit them over eyeglasses.

The glasses are by no means a deal-breaker and still provide a better experience than seeing it in 2-D. But, given the option, spring for a RealD-equipped theater. (Find Dolby 3-D theater locations)

RealD: Between Dolby and RealD, visually, the two are similar. So, it comes down to the glasses and whichever theater is closest to you.

The RealD glasses are comfortable and easily fit over eyeglasses. We even heard a few whispers of people saying they’re ‘stylish.’ If you want to sport that hipster look while enjoying the show, these should have you covered. (Find RealD theater locations)

Even then, we haven’t hit on all the 3-D technologies out there. For example, the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood uses XpanD to power its nonstandard-sized screen. If readers have some insights on that one, we’d love to hear about it in the comments section.

But of the big three, RealD offers the best 3-D experience in a standard theater. For a couple dollars more, IMAX is big, loud and eye-popping -- if you’re into having things constantly jump at you and can handle the blur. No matter what, we emphasize that you’ll really want to see ‘Avatar’ in 3-D. You know, as long as you don’t have a medical condition preventing you from doing so.

-- Mark Milian


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Photos top and bottom credit: R. E. Milian. Photo middle credit: T.J. Milian