Film has always been an inherently technological art form. While mediums like visual arts, theater, music and dance spent millennia as only-in-person, analog experiences, movies only came to exist with cameras and projection methods on some sort of screen. Given this, there's always a push to innovate in film — both from filmmakers (camera techniques, CGI, etc.) and theaters trying to get butts in seats (3D, IMAX, Smell-O-Vision, et al.). Audiences have been often thrilled by various advances that enhanced their viewing experience ever since being freaked out by the movie of the train coming at the screen.
With an open mind to new theatrical innovations, I recently found myself at the Sphere in Las Vegas. The LED-covered dome just off the Strip has garnered viral attention since its late September opening thanks to its stunning exterior visuals, but I wanted to see what the all-encompassing screen on the inside was like. As part of the event space's opening, they're screening a new site-specific film by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) called Postcard from Earth, which is part nature documentary and part sci-fi narrative (but mostly a tech demo to show off the Sphere and its screen).
The screen at the Sphere is both the highest resolution screen on the planet (16k x 16k), but also partially wraps around the audience. In simplest terms, it basically feels like a planetarium on steroids, HGH, and any other performance enhancers it can get its hands on. From an audio perspective, it's truly surround sound — with noise liable to emanate from any corner of the auditorium despite no visible speakers. And to further its immersiveness, it features some of the more gimmicky movie theater elements — seats that can rumble, pumped in smells and bursts of air at certain moments — to create a 4D experience.
Postcard from Earth is designed to throw viewers into the deep end of the Sphere's movie tech. The 50-minute film is, for all intents and purposes, a Planet Earth-like nature documentary primarily meant to showcase how images can look on the Sphere screen. And on that account, holy crap does it succeed. The cinematography team, led by Dustin Kukuk, captured some of the most stunning shots I've ever seen committed to the (very, very) big screen. It's hardly revolutionary to garner great imagery from the natural and human world, but the Sphere screen makes one feel like they're actually engulfed to the point of being on-site. The seat shaking under the thundering steps of elephants or the air swirling during massive storms actually works, even if it occasionally makes Postcard from Earth feel almost like an amusement park movie ride — like the Disneyland Star Wars staple Star Tours, but for rich Vegas tourists.
There are so many little scenes that are legitimately breathtaking: drone shots whirring over ice-capped mountains, spider jump scares, the colorful tapestry of a sky filled with kites, engrossing underwater shots of jellyfish, fireworks explosions, the colorful bursts of Holi celebrations, anxiety inducing manic time-lapse shots, even just screen-filling collages of human faces. It's unrelenting, akin to the high-speed flood of imagery sequences in Requiem for a Dream, but done in slightly calmer waves to showcase the Earth's majestic beauty... until things take a darker turn.
Postcard from Earth's main flaw is the sci-fi narrative that bookends the documentary aspects. Essentially, it's presented as if space colonizers from Earth are waking up from hibernation and being reminded of the planet humans came from by their spaceship's technology in order to contextualize their start to colonizing a new planet (and hopefully not f— it up, unlike how humans trashed Earth). While it's mainly a setup so that there can be AI-sounding narration over the film, it feels a tad cheesy, clunky and tacked on. It is however hilarious to see how clearly the notoriously bleak Aronofsky wanted the film to slowly transition from feel-amazing nature doc to a condemnation of humanity destroying this beautiful planet. You can almost hear the Sphere executives screaming, "Darren, this is our opening tech demo! Chill out! We're trying not to get people to think they're in a power-draining capitalist monolith of a venue! At least give us a mildly hopeful ending!"
While I wouldn't suggest every movie lover needs to rush to Vegas to see Postcard from Earth (it's clearly making those tourists bucks right now and not worth the $90-$250 ticket price point unless you're a huge film tech fanatic), it will certainly be interesting to see if other filmmakers of Aronfsky's caliber decide to make more films for this one-site venue. Technology can't be paradigm-shifting without massive scale, and the Sphere's screen simply isn't translatable tech. The Sphere may be revolutionary, but it's hard to spark an actual revolution from one lone desert outpost. ♦POSTCARD FROM EARTH