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Nascar 3D: The IMAX Experience (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 12 March 2004
IMAX films are a category unto themselves; for years, the image has been everything, taking us on travelogue-like journeys, including into space, under the sea and into towering mountain ranges. The gigantic images sweep over you, drawing you almost into the movie—especially, of course, when it’s also in 3D.

Australian Simon Wincer is best known for movies featuring animals, often horses; he’s done “Phar Lap” and “Free Willy.” His work is variable; “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles” wasn’t much, but “Quigley Down Under” had its charms. He’s now turned to IMAX; his “The Young Black Stallion” was released in that format last winter, and now he brings us “NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience.”

It’s a surprisingly detailed and informative documentary, swiftly and vividly taking us through the history of the sport of stock car racing. The great names are evoked: Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhart. The great races are described and often shown: at times the gigantic IMAX screen breaks up into smaller screens to show images from the past, or to emphasize details. (The cars these days, of course, are hardly “stock cars” (originally meaning standard cars right off the assembly line), but amazingly designed objects built from the inside out to do one thing: go very fast.)

It’s an expensive sport; in one major event, a million dollars worth of tires is worn away. Cars, drivers, walls, every flat space is laden with ads for products, mostly related in some way to cars and their drivers, but there’s no restrictions: a major event and the movie itself are sponsored by AOL.

And it’s very popular, some say the most popular sport in the United States. When a big meet is held in one city in Tennessee, that day it goes from the 23rd largest city in the state to the third largest. It’s a family sport on the track and in the stands; families arrive by the thousands in mobile homes of all sizes and shapes to watch their favorite drivers, or the drivers’ sons and grandsons, roar around the track at speeds averaging 200 mph.

Wincer’s sprightly editing and camera work prevent the movie from falling into the rut that tends to make NASCAR racing boring for others than the cognoscenti. Watching cars driving around and around and around and around can get tiresome, but the movie never does. Several times, Wincer uses time-lapse photography, as when the cars carrying the trucks and their crews arrive at a stadium, or in the several vividly-depicted pit stops.

It makes great use not just of the huge image area, but of the nearly flawless 3D. Crowds in the bleachers stretch out before us; we don’t see a mob, we see a collection of individuals, each person standing out in relief. (I suspect “hyper-stereo” was used here, with the two lenses farther apart than human eyes are.) Yes, there are occasional wrecks; one sends a tire flying straight at the 3D camera in what had to be a true accident, but one the filmmakers probably welcomed.

As always with IMAX, the sound is as huge and awesome as the image. The theater throbs with 1200 watts of sonic power, shaking the audience’s bones with the deep throbbing roar of the engines and the sounds of the cars tearing over the course.

There are occasional interviews with drivers and their families, but we don’t see them; they continue as voice-over behind the images of the cars, the tracks and the crews. Kiefer Sutherland provides the narration, smoothly and clearly; it’s a fine, self-effacing job.

Slowly but surely IMAX is changing from something like a sideshow attraction to a regular, even normal, part of movie output. Standard theatrical features have been blown up to IMAX proportions, and some major directors (James Cameron for instance) have worked in the format and declared their intentions to do so again.

The screenings are indeed expensive, but the experience IMAX provides simply cannot be achieved any other way. Movies like “NASCAR 3D” make it even more worthwhile.

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