Spectacular though it may be, there is a feeling of melancholy that underscores Hubble, the latest IMAX feature making the rounds of Science Centres and IMAX-equipped theatres this week.
The story of the May 2009 mission of the space shuttle Atlantis, to make one last re-fit on the Hubble Space Telescope, amounts to two goodbyes in one.
It was the last maintenance that will ever be performed on the eye-in-the-sky that has multiplied our knowledge of the universe, um, astronomically. It means Hubble effectively has only a couple more years of operating life.
Why this is so is not explained — a weakness of IMAX, in that its limited screentime doesn’t leave much room for exposition. But the U.S., and by extension NASA, is effectively broke. Not only is there no money to upkeep Hubble, but the shuttles that service it will soon be decommissioned.
But, hey, why bring down schoolkids with bad news about the world they’re inheriting? The end of the shuttles, though, will certainly be a blow to IMAX, which has made space and deep sea its bread-and-butter.
But enough buzz kill.
Hubble itself is two films in one. Only eight minutes of footage is from the actual flight of the Atlantis, most of it devoted to mundane-but-strangely-compelling shots of space-walking astronauts trying to do fine installation work (work which narrator Leonardo DiCaprio describes as akin to “performing brain surgery with oven mitts”).
The rest of the film is simply Hubble’s legacy writ as large as the universe itself. It sees through nebulae with infra-red lenses, exposing “stellar nurseries,” where stars are being born and simultaneously buffeted by intense forces — looking for all the world like celestial tadpoles in the process.
It separates stars by colour and heat intensity, giving us a sense of what the 100 billion stars in our galaxy look like in a true group photo.
And then it leaves the galaxy and takes us on a clear-eyed journey through time itself to look at other galaxies and the black holes and other destructive forces therein. (The pictures get fuzzier, and the galaxies themselves more misshapen as the images begin to date from closer to the Big Bang, as far back as 10 billion years).
The “Ooh-Ahh” factor, which is still both IMAX’s strength and limitation, is in full play here. The images of incomprehensible energy storms and gravity wells are almost hallucinatory, like Hieronymus Bosch paintings of a skyward hell.
As a “Hubble’s Greatest Hits” package, however, it’s missing a few. The amazing photos Hubble took of the comet Shoemaker Levy 9 hitting Jupiter come to mind.
Still, this is a quibble (and maybe something to be taken up by IMAX when Hubble finally gives up the ghost).
In the end, Hubble is exactly what we watch IMAX for. It is eye candy, complete with eye-popping special effects. Unlike Avatar, it’s all real.
(This film is rated G)
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