For years now, I’ve had a very strict policy when it comes to seeing movies in theaters: IMAX, or I don’t go. This past weekend, I ignored that policy and went to see Top Gun: Maverick in a standard theater, and I’ve been regretting it ever since.
I know that an IMAX-only policy sounds elitist and entitled, and it is. But it’s also pragmatic. I’m fortunate enough to have a 65-inch TV at home and a pretty decent Dolby Atmos home theater sound system. It’s such an enjoyable way to watch movies, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only movies I will see in a theater are big, Hollywood extravaganzas. The kind of movies that demand to be seen on the big screen. You know the ones I’m talking about: Marvel, DC, Star Wars, James Bond, Mission: Impossible, and yes, Top Gun: Maverick.
This policy means that I go to the theaters way less than I used to. But it also means that when I go, I’m getting the very best sound and vision experience possible. My Top Gun: Maverick experience was a reminder of why that matters, and why I urge you to go see this movie in an IMAX theater, if you can.
There’s a simple truth to the way we experience things visually. The more of our field of vision an image occupies, the more real and immersive it feels. In an ideal movie viewing scenario, the screen fills up your field of view to the point where only the very extremes of your peripheral vision aren’t occupied by it. In other words, to see anything but the screen, you’d need to turn your head and look away.
IMAX theaters do a better job of filling your field of view than any other kind of cinema for two reasons: The screens are bigger, and the way the seating areas are stacked relative to the screens, pretty much everyone in the audience can enjoy that sensation.
I won’t be revealing any spoilers when I tell you that 100% of the reason to see Top Gun: Maverick, are the flight sequences. They were shot inside the cockpits of real F-18 fighter jets, during real aerial maneuvers. Tom Cruise has been clear when asked why he and the cast and crew went to such extremes: Cruise wants every member of the audience to feel like they’re right there in the cockpit, too.
On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the movie theater experience that gets you closest to Cruise’s goal, IMAX is a 10, and normal theaters are lucky if they’re a 7.
Now let’s talk about the audio. George Lucas famously said that he believes sound is 50% of the movie-going experience. That wasn’t just talk. He invested heavily in that belief and eventually created THX, which has become the gold standard for cinematic sound.
And while IMAX theaters are rightly famous for the size of their projected images, they’re just as impressive for their treatment of movie sound. Packed with speakers that are located in front, behind, beside, and above the seating area, if you’ve ever been to see an IMAX movie, you know the sound has a life of its own. I’ve left some IMAX screenings in greater awe of what I heard than what I saw — Denis Villeneuve’s Dune being a particularly visceral recent experience.
With its roaring jets (and, yes, even some of its less intense moments) Top Gun: Maverick‘s ability to transport you from your seat in the theater to that seat in an F-18 will very much depend on how good your theater’s sound system is, and it doesn’t get much better than IMAX.
But it’s not just sound effects that need punch and clarity. I don’t know what was going on with the theater I went to, but the dialog was soft and at times almost unintelligible — even during scenes that didn’t take place in the heat of battle. There are few things more distracting while watching a movie, few things that break you out of that place of getting lost in a story, like leaning over to your seatmate and whispering, “What did he say?”
Let’s be real, Top Gun: Maverick isn’t going to win any awards for its writing. But the fact that so much key dialogue is spoken by characters who are in the midst of performing frighteningly complex aerobatics, against the backdrop of the howl of their jets, means you actually need a better ability to hear what they’re saying. And I’ve never had a problem hearing dialog in an IMAX theater.
Remember, boys, no points for second place
So why did I break my long-standing rule about IMAX for a movie like Top Gun: Maverick? Well, I had the opportunity to see it with the same friend that was in the seat beside me when I saw Top Gun in the theater for the first time in 1986, and I wasn’t going to turn that down over a question of which cinema he booked. You always stay with your wingman.
But I’ve already planned my next movie mission. I’ll be going to see Top Gun: Maverick again, but this time, I’ll be going Mach 2 with my hair on fire … in an IMAX theater.
And the results back all this up. The four-day weekend opening in the United States (thanks to Memorial Day) led to a $32.5 million debut overall globally. — with $21 million of that coming from IMAX in North America alone.
“If you thought movies were dead, go see ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and then let me know what you think. This film heralds the return of the summer blockbuster and is a catalyst that will accelerate demand for moviegoing like an F-18 breaking the sound barrier,” said Rich Gelfond, CEO of IMAX. “There’s no way you sit in a theatre, with a huge screen and chest-pounding speakers, and come away thinking there’s any other way you want to experience ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, and our hats are off to Tom Cruise, Joe Kosinski and their fearless creative team for what they’ve accomplished.”
Update, June 6, 2022: Saw Top Gun: Maverick with my family in an IMAX theater, over the weekend. Verdict: So. Much. Better.
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