When you're 220 miles above the Earth doing 17,500 miles per hour, you take NOTHING lightly!
IMAX made "Space Station" in partnership with Lockheed Martin and NASA, with a script and direction by Toni Myers and narration by Tom Cruise. As blatantly obvious as this may sound, it still caught me off guard to find out that the astronauts aboard the ISS (International Space Station) performed most of the filming and shot direction for "Space Station." The special features on the disc provide footage of the astronauts filming their shots.
Having only seen a couple of IMAX films, when I finished watching "Space Station", I found it interesting, and boring at the same time. So, all in all, it was an average IMAX experience for me. I've only seen the nature type IMAX films until now, so the "Space Station" film sounded like a great change of pace. For someone who has logged a lot of Discovery, History, PBS, and Learning Channel time, documentaries are usually right up my alley. However, with "Space Station" too many scenes are simply shots of the astronauts performing daily duties and routines, all of which are in slow motion, that the film tends to move along at a snail's pace. While these things may be exciting for the astronauts themselves to perform on a regular basis in space, average viewers watching in their Earthbound home theaters will probably find it pretty boring. To be fair, by and large, the boredom probably stems from watching a film on a 52 inch screen versus a 52 foot screen. This is not to say that "Space Station" isn't still worth watching, though.
"Space Station" begins with an amazing exterior shot from the space shuttle Discovery of the International Space Station in orbit. The scene opens with Tom Cruise, who fares very well at narration, and genuinely sounds interested, and in awe of the scenes he's narrating. If he didn't have such a lucrative film career, I'd say he could be right up there with the likes of Leonard Nimoy, Lorne Greene, and the History Channel's Will Lyman as a voice-over narrator.
The astronaut's talents, amongst other things, were shooting scenes with the IMAX cameras for "Space Station", in which they were very adept. Before their mission the astronauts trained over the course of six months to run the IMAX cameras. Allowed to take shots of what they wanted, the astronauts had to view their work on an actual IMAX screen directly after filming. "It's like watching your worst home movies on the biggest screen in the world. They learn really quickly," said James Neihouse (director of photography and astronaut training). The camera work is well choreographed and well executed, considering the size of the IMAX cameras and the tight quarters in which the astronauts were forced to work and live.
The film takes you on an almost overly informative tour from astronaut training and preparation through all of the practice needed before, during, and up to their coming home to Earth. In one portion of the film, a Russian "Proton" rocket launches from the pad carrying the first component of the International Space Station, called "Zaria." This part of the film was one of my favorites, as the IMAX camera, stationed VERY close to the launch pad, has a chunk of cement hurled through the protective glass in front of it by the 2,500,000 pounds of thrust coming from the Proton rocket. Watching things get broken up by extreme means is always fun.
Right about now, however, is where the film slows to a mind-numbing halt. While the information conveyed by Tom Cruise and the scenes you're being shown are intriguing, they are not by any stretch of the imagination exciting. The film goes through all of the missions and duties performed by the astronauts, plus the equipment they use to perform them. It isn't until the astronauts' dinner time that the film becomes a little more interesting, and a little comical. At this point, we're exposed to "rocket scientist" humor and antics, coupled with a weightless environment. It's fascinating to see so many professional astronauts from around the world working in such close proximity and having such a close, personal relationship with one another. It makes you appreciate all of the language and cultural barriers they had to overcome.
While "Space Station" may not be the best of the IMAX film series, I could not get enough of every single shot of Earth from either the ISS, the shuttle, or the Soyuz space capsule. They were nothing short of incredible! The shots of the Earth spinning below the astronauts while space walking are hypnotic. This disc may very well be worth the purchase price for these images alone. Specifically, there is a fish-eye shot from shuttle Discovery as it undocks from the ISS. This is a fairly long process, but your attention is on the spectacular view of the Earth as it spins below, not the task at hand. The drastic contrast in the black void of space and the beautiful blue sphere below is awe inspiring.
The video images are all crisp and clear, and I didn't notice any flaws in the DVD footage. The IMAX lenses capture brilliant views from space looking down on Earth, with a pleasing color balance, qualities I can only attribute to an adept operator at the levels' controls. Warner Bros. transferred "Space Station"__ in a standard 1.33:1 ratio, transferred from IMAX's original 70mm, 1.44:1 print.
The audio for "Space Station" is presented in English and French Dolby Surround 5.1, and it lends quite a bit to the enjoyment of watching the documentary. The sound effects and music add to the spatial ambience and transport you into the quality IMAX experience that movie goers have come to expect. The very low bass frequencies are there in key sections of the film, but they don't come off as "boomy." A nice balance of music and sound effects allows for a natural feel to the atmosphere of the movie.
As with other discs I've watched, the extras save the day. The first option among the Special Features is a commentary track by director Toni Myers and astronaut Marsha Ivins. If you don't get enough information from the film itself, Myers and Ivins will surely provide any information you missed. They cover behind-the-scenes information and provide comments that are worth listening to. Myers provides specific information about the equipment, the manufacturing processes, and the physical aspects of certain scenes that narrator Tom Cruise glosses over. Next up is "Adventures In Space," a featurette that covers some of NASA's history, as well as it's partnerships with Lockheed Martin. There are also several interviews with Toni Myers, Marsha Ivins, former astronauts James S. Voss and Brian Duffy, as well as Lockheed Martin's Steve Chaudet (VP State & Local Govt. Affairs). Enthusiasts will eat these features up, while the casual IMAX viewer will more than likely pass them over. You get to hear the various perspectives of these individuals in their filmmaking roles, as well as hear about the hurdles they encountered along the way. "Adventures In Space" is my second-favorite special feature on the disc.
The third item among the special features is "Expedition 7 – An Audio Visual Tour of the ISS." This portion I'd have to say was my least favorite and is easily the most boring element on the disc. Astronaut Dr. Ed Lu narrates this segment. Before I get too deeply into this, I should preface it by saying that my opinion on this portion of the disc is in no way meant to be disrespectful to Dr. Lu. Rather, it has to do with the content he was asked to shoot and the quality of the audio. Basically, Dr. Lu roams the ISS, concentrating on all of the switches, knobs, computers, etc. While this may be absolutely riveting to the space nerd who has an exact replica of the ISS in his back yard, it's a good thing I didn't have a gun while reviewing this film, because anyone within earshot would have heard "PULL!" and the sound of a DVD shattering! The audio problem I mentioned refers to the way it was recorded. Dr. Lu sounds as if he were recorded through the space station's UHF radio communications' deck. His narration is very broken up almost all the way through, and it gets quite annoying when you have to piece together his disjointed sentences and try to make sense of it. At first, Dr. Lu sounds as if he's speaking to you from "Mission Control," and that's kind of cool, but ultimately this special feature became wearying for me.
Now we get to the meat of it! Fourth up on the Special Features section is "STS-108 – An Audio Visual Tour of the ISS." This bonus item is actually a little better than the feature film itself in a number of ways. First off, we start the segment watching the astronauts flying NASA T-38 trainer planes. It's very short, but is a good way to start off a special featurette. Next up, we're taken through the astronauts' "strap in" process onboard the shuttle in its vertical position on the launch pad. The filmmakers don't spend much time here, but it's still cool to see. Next, we're taken to an external shot of the shuttle with a picture-in-picture of the shuttle crew as they're going through the launch. This is something I've never seen before. We actually see the crew bouncing around in the cockpit as they go to "main engine start" on the pad, and we get to watch the crew's reactions as they're going through three times the force of gravity on liftoff. Expertly directed shots are key here, and there were a quite a few handheld shots out of just about every window on the shuttle. There were also eye-catching action shots within the ISS. And the featurette keeps moving along; it doesn't stagnate as the main film tended to do, operations that were moving at paint-drying speeds sped up for the sake of keeping the audience's interest. We find more astronaut humor well placed throughout this feature, and more picture-in-picture shots showing different views of the same action. This feature also incorporated by far the most and some of the best shots of the Earth from the shuttle, from the ISS, and from the space walks.
Rounding out the last of the special features are a photo gallery composed of pictures used throughout the film and special featurettes; and an IMAX trailer giving us a brief preview of other available IMAX films.
I liked IMAX's "Space Station," although I don't know that I'd watch it more often than every blue moon. The surround sound is well handled and definitely makes you feel more as though you're in an IMAX theater. While I had a few issues with this disc, I wouldn't call it a waste of money. Yet neither would I say it's the best of the IMAX films. If you're a space nut, you'll love "Space Station." If you're the casual technology or documentary watcher, it's a decent purchase. If you go to IMAX films because they have big screens, however, you may find yourself asleep before you get to the midway point in the film (unless you just can't get enough of Tom Cruise). The special features are the disc's strong suit, and in my opinion they make the purchase worthwhile.