Angelenos don't suffer from a lack of different ways to see movies. We have one true IMAX screen (for now) at Universal City Walk, and we have plenty of "fake" IMAXes (the difference has to do with both screen size and the fact that real IMAX uses 70mm film rather than digital). We have the 4DX Experience at L.A. Live, which we've reviewed. Heck, we even have the historic Cinerama Dome, a relic of an era when experimental theaters simultaneously projected three images onto a huge screen. And now, we're one of five cities in the country that has Barco Escape — at the Cinemark at the Howard Hughes Center in Westchester.
Barco Escape, which is the brainchild of Barco, a technology company that makes projectors and other ways to display images, surrounds the audience with three screens. Only the back wall, behind the audience, remains dark, but anything else in the audience's range of vision is fair game. In addition to movies, the company is also planning to use the format — which reportedly costs $120,000 to $150,000 to install — to screen concerts, like a Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga performance in early 2015.
It's quite a departure from traditional film projection techniques. The major selling point of true IMAX and Cinerama is the ability to watch 70mm film prints, which are both wider than what you see in most movie theaters, and often have a better quality image than 35mm or digital projection. But even Cinerama, which has an extremely wide, sloping screen extending over 146 degrees of vision, can't rival the 270-degree experience that Barco Escape provides.
For now, Cinerama doesn't have too much to worry about. The Cinemark at the Howard Hughes Center (which was formerly home to L.A.'s other true IMAX screen, before that was converted to a copycat "XD" experience) is currently offering the Barco Escape experience for The Maze Runner, the dystopian teen flick. The Barco version of the movie only features seven minutes of three-screen footage — the rest of the movie is projected onto the main screen, directly in front of the audience.
For a few minutes at the beginning and near the climax of the movie, the two side screens come to life, making it feel like you're living the movie. It feels like something out of Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt," a short story where the walls of a virtual reality room come to life. It's awe-inspiring, and a bit of a sensory overload.
That overload is a double-edged sword. While being literally surrounded both aurally and visually is amazing, the execution of the three-screen scenes in The Maze Runner leaves much to be desired. First of all, the flanking screens only extend part-way into the audience, so anyone who's not sitting directly in the middle of all three screens will probably feel like the opposite of cross-eyed — where your eyes are both going out instead of in. It's exhausting trying to take in everything that's happening on the fractured screens.
The fact that they're set at sharp 90-degree angles probably doesn't help — another super wide-screen experience (not provided by Barco) in Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con this year worked much better because the screens were at much gentler angles, which created a more curved experience, almost reminiscent of Cinerama.
But the bigger problem lies in the supplementary footage for the side screens — it's clear that it wasn't filmed at the same time as the rest of the movie. When a character goes off the edge of the main screen, he doesn't appear on the neighboring screen; he just disappears momentarily, only to reappear later on the main screen, while the side screens continue showing stock footage of the environment.
Luckily, unlike every other premium viewing experience in L.A., there's no extra cost to watch a movie in Barco Escape, at least for now. It's definitely a format with plenty of kinks that need to be worked out, but it has a lot of potential. With the increasing popularity of VOD and rising ticket prices at movie theaters, a trip to the multiplex isn't as attractive as it used to be. If movie theaters are providing an experience that simply cannot be re-created at home, though, like the sense that you're actually in the world of the film, it might entice customers to go back to the movie theater. If Barco Escape can finesse the craft of making a truly immersive movie experience, they could usher in a new era of movie magic.
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