IMAX mates with T. Rex

These dinosaurs are bigger and cooler than any you've ever seen before -- but they could use a better movie to star in.

Published December 4, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

To the IMAX Corporation -- purveyors of large-screen, high-resolution, high-tech cinema experiences -- size really does matter. The company has big plans to expand its market beyond museums and amusement parks during the next few years, and bring the nation's shopping malls a new generation of IMAX features that will be more Hollywood and less PBS.

"T-REX: Back to the Cretaceous," an IMAX 3-D film directed by Brett Leonard ("Lawnmower Man," "Virtuosity") and starring Peter Horton of TV's "thirtysomething," is being hyped as the first IMAX movie with blockbuster potential. (It premiered in New York in October, and will open in wider release, on at least 40 screens nationwide, through January.) When you view them on the largest IMAX screens through 3-D glasses, the dinosaurs in "T-REX" will appear bigger and taller than they did in real life. But they're not going to command nearly the amount of attention or respect that IMAX needs to make the huge transition from destination entertainment to mainstream commercial success.

Nobody expects a dinosaur movie to be clever; it just has to achieve one simple thing -- create a world that lets us imagine what it would be like to live with our planet's former tenants. The more realistic the special effects, the more successfully uncanny a dinosaur movie tends to be: The difference between "One Million Years B.C." and "The Lost World" is like the difference between finding a cache of family photos left by the previous occupants of your house and having the whole clan show up one day at your kitchen door.

In its best moments, "T-REX: Back to the Cretaceous," the first IMAX 3-D dinosaur movie, creates precisely the same eerie, thrilling, transporting effect that most of us experienced when we first saw that long shot of the Brontosaurus at the beginning of "Jurassic Park." The computer-generated dinosaurs in "T-REX" have skin that shines with iridescent blues, greens, yellows and reds, following the latest trends in paleontologic research. They have the disconcerting habit of lunging to within spitting distance of the audience and shaking their heads furiously as they roar, open-mouthed, saliva strings stretched between their teeth, their tongues vibrating in the wind of their own breath.

Yet despite being able to brag of the most realistic dinosaurs ever to appear on-screen, "T-REX" is a terrible movie. The dinosaurs in "T-REX" romp for maybe 10 of the film's 45 minutes, and their scenes are over so fast the audience can barely register the painstaking detail in which the creatures are rendered. (Technically, the resolution of the computer-generated graphics in "T-REX" exceeds anything that's ever been seen on-screen; scientifically, the images are equally impeccable -- director Leonard says he spent a full hour one day during production discussing the precise nostril slant of a Hadrosaur.)

Even worse, there's no real mystery, awe or terror in the film's interactions between contemporary and Cretaceous-period creatures. The dinosaurs in "T-REX" can't inspire much emotion because they're too busy illustrating a point -- the screenplay's preachy platitude that parental neglect is bad. This was, coincidentally, a central theme of "The Lost World" as well.

At the beginning of "T-REX," a whiny teenager named Ally (Liz Stauber) wishes her famous paleontologist dad Donald Hayden (Peter Horton) would pay more attention to her. One day, while Donald is out digging for bones, Ally writes a transference-addled, cry-for-help science project about "The Parental Instincts of Dinosaurs." This phrase, coincidentally, was also used by Julianne Moore in "The Lost World" to describe her interest in tyrannosaurus Rex.

When Ally shows her dad the project during a visit to his office in the Natural History Museum, he completely misses its autobiographical relevance and lectures Ally about her laxity in following the scientific method, before disappearing into a meeting with his tight-sweatered, Laura Dern look-alike assistant, Elizabeth (Kari Coleman).

Left alone in her dad's office, Ally freaks out during a power failure and accidentally knocks a dinosaur egg off his desk. When the egg cracks, it emits orange smoke that nauseates Ally and sends her on a trip through time -- first to the early 20th century, where she meets paleontologist Barnum Brown and dinosaur illustrator Charles Knight; then to a primeval forest, where she wanders around hollering, "Dad!" and eventually makes friends with a T. Rex, who lets her pet it on the nose just moments before an extinctive asteroid blazes overhead.

In the course of her travels, Ally learns that her conjectures about dinosaurs' parental instincts are all true. So we're not surprised that when Ally returns to the museum, Dad comes to his senses, praises her science project and even invites her along for his next dig. Oddly enough, a newfound appreciation of children was also the most important transformation wrought by "Jurassic Park" on the paleontologist character played by Sam Neill.

For director Leonard, "T-REX" is the latest in a string of films that suffer from an egregious overload of high-quality special effects and distractingly dull plots and characters. Like "Lawnmower Man" and "Virtuosity," which put characters in cool-looking virtual environments and then mechanized their emotions in order to push facile messages about freedom and justice, "T-REX" will be an endurance test for all but the most forgiving technophiles. Although the movie occasionally exploits the strengths of IMAX 3-D in new ways -- as in Leonard's brief shots from the tyrannosaurus's point of view, or his delightfully disorienting full-screen close-up of a tiny aquarium -- its innovations are sufficiently spare and isolable that they don't add up to any kind of vision.

The failure of "T-REX" is a problem not only for unsuspecting audiences, but also for the IMAX firm and its format. IMAX is pursuing an ambitious plan to become a player in the commercial theater industry: Last year, the company agreed to build dozens of screens for theater chains in the United States and Canada, and it's still working to fill a backlog of orders (for clients such as Cineplex Odeon) to build almost 80 theaters -- three-fourths of them commercial -- within the next two years.

Theater chains are signing agreements with IMAX because they've been promised a new generation of Hollywood-style features that will add some flash to the IMAX image and expand the traditional IMAX audience of tourists and school groups to encompass mall rats and garden-variety adults as well. Paramount is developing a 40-minute 3-D "Star Trek" movie, Children's Television Workshop is working on a feature starring Elmo (of "tickle me" fame) and IMAX is currently negotiating other deals with companies including SKG Dreamworks and Disney. IMAX hoped "T-REX" would be the first of many crossover hits.

But the first IMAX movie to garner serious ticket sales will have to be better grounded in the peculiar strengths of the IMAX medium than "T-REX." With its vast screen size and all-encompassing sound, IMAX is the most immersive film experience available today: It's about taking viewers to a place (as in "Antarctica" or "The Serengeti") and showing how stories emerge from that setting. What makes "T-REX" a bad 3-D IMAX movie is what makes it a bad dinosaur movie: Instead of giving its eponymous protagonist center stage to strut and fret and sit in the audience's laps, it spends its best energy throwing a watered-down, imitation-Spielberg story in your face.

By Michael Joseph Gross

Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston.

MORE FROM Michael Joseph Gross

Related Topics ------------------------------------------