XD me, baby!

- December 24, 2012

"This isn’t so much a movie review as a movie theater review."

This isn’t so much a movie review as a movie theater review.

Last week I went to Cinemark’s Century Rio 24 in Albuquerque, where the XD—Extreme Digital Cinema—has Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit.”

Constant readers will recall that screen as the one on which I saw the amazing “Life of Pi,” a major movie-going experience enhanced exponentially by the eye-and-ear filling XD format.

Cinemark, based in Plano TX, owns the Century and Tinseltown chains, operating 298 theaters in the U.S., with 3,895 screens. (By comparison, Regal, America’s largest exhibitor, runs 521 and 6,607).

A couple years back, Cinemark upgraded to XD, converting existing screens to luxe status. That dictates fewer but larger seats (520 at the Rio) and more comfort, like pleather recliners in stadium rows. Plus a four-story-high, smartly curved screen in an auditorium 75 feet across, with bright, 30,000-lumen digital projection and 30 JBL speakers blasting super-stereo. You pay more--$15.25 general admission, $11.75 kids and seniors—but it’s worth it. XD is big, like IMAX (an abbreviation for Image Maximum), but more accessibly mainstream and with a wider selection of titles.

“The Hobbit” offers even more, upping the ante for image quality with director Jackson’s innovative use of High Frame Rate. Since the advent of sound pictures in 1927, the industry projection standard has been 24 frames of film per second. Jackson mandated 48fps, and in 3-D, a first. So there’s no strobing or flickering. It’s hyper-real, neither film nor video. Some critics dis it, complaining that HFR resembles live theater or Nintendo. I expected it to look like the Met Opera’s Live in HD simulcasts.

But no, the comparison is more the difference between regular 35mm movies and the ginormous 70mm epics of the 50s and 60s, like “Ben-Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” The visual clarity of 70mm was a landmark in cinematic evolution, and the same quantum leap is true of HFR. Already, James Cameron has announced he’ll use it for his “Avatar” sequels, and Andy Serkis (Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”) will employ HFR for his adaptation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”  

XD is proprietary to Cinemark, meaning you won’t find it at a Regal multiplex. Eventually, I suppose, Regal and other chains like AMC, Carmike, and Marcus will have their own versions. But for now, XD is the best big show in New Mexico.

Maybe not forever, though. Regal has announced a plex of 16 screens at Winrock in Albuquerque, come May 2013, spotlighting the state’s first true IMAX theater. (Otherwise, the closest one is in Colorado Springs. I don’t count the Clyde Tombaugh Theater at the NM Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, as it’s domed like the old Omnimax theaters, and doubles as a planetarium.)

Moreover, there’s also Premiere Cinema’s intriguing D-Box theater in Rio Rancho, whose rocking chairs really rock--up and down, sideways, back and forth, in sync with screen action (tickets: $17.50). It seems reminiscent of those old self-contained virtual rides like “Dinosaur Island” they used to have in malls.

I haven’t been yet. But do I wish to be shaken, rattled, and rolled when all I really want is to see the movie move?

We shall see…

PS: If you were wondering, I found “The Hobbit” itself to be pleasant enough, but pointless in a been-there-done-that kind of way. Thank you for asking.