Special Effects Take Flight In Imax Film 'Wings of Courage'

Mega screens and 3-D imagery serve up visual thrills

You'll feel like you're in the picture! Movie advertisements have made that claim for years, but ''Wings of Courage'' makes good on the promise in a novel way. It's the first narrative movie presented in Imax 3-D, a new process combining the size of an Imax picture -- 10 times larger than 35mm film provides -- with the depth of 3-D imagery.

All of which raises an important question: Do you want to be in this picture, which centers on an intrepid aviator making his way to safety after crashing his plane in the Andes?

Adventure fans may answer with a rousing yes, since it's unlikely that any previous film has served up so many bone-chilling landscapes and life-threatening situations with such an obsessive sense of realism. But if you prefer cozy firesides to frostbitten journeys, you may prefer to wait for some future Imax attraction offering milder, homier pleasures.

Be this as it may, Imax 3-D will probably be on the scene for some time to come, if only because it represents such a hefty investment on the part of producers and exhibitors who've decided to use it.

Large quantities of high-tech thingamabobs -- from cameras as big as refrigerators to screens as high as eight-story buildings -- are needed to provide the visual thrills available at the Sony Imax Theatre in Manhattan, where I checked out the new process, and similar facilities in other cities.

Such equipment doesn't come cheap, so Imax promoters will be doing their best to generate a steady stream of pictures designed to draw the largest possible audiences. The most recent move in this direction is a commitment from cable TV's popular Discovery Channel to produce films in the large format.

''Wings of Courage'' takes Imax a significant step beyond the documentary fare that has been its main product until now. Craig Sheffer plays a French aviator who waves goodbye to his wife and employers -- the great author Antoine de St. Exupery is among them -- and takes his 1930 biplane on a mail run over the Andes Cordillera range. Savage weather forces him into a crash landing, whereupon he stashes the mail in a safe place and starts walking toward civilization, countless miles away.

''Feet of Courage'' might be a more accurate title, since more of the movie focuses on Sheffer trudging through the snow than flying through the sky.

Other scenes show his faithful spouse (Elizabeth McGovern) and anxious comrades (Tom Hulce and Val Kilmer) waiting and fretting on the home front. A few musical and romantic interludes are also sandwiched into the scenario, showing off Imax's entertainment versatility.

Kinks have not been completely eliminated from the Imax 3-D process, which is prone to ''ghosts'' and other visual imperfections. Nor is there much to crow about in the new PSE sound system, which delivers some of the soundtrack through tiny speakers in each moviegoer's liquid-crystal headset. This is the same headset you view the picture through, replacing the celluloid glasses that 3-D audiences had to put up with in the 1950s, when three-dimensional movies made their first bid for popularity.

More important than these technical shortcomings is the fundamental fact that ''Wings of Courage'' isn't much of a movie beyond its novelty value. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose credits include such outdoorsy films as ''Quest for Fire'' and ''The Bear,'' it's a perfunctory action yarn that cares more about the impact of its effects than the thoughtfulness of its drama.

Fortunately for audiences, the Imax 3-D headsets -- relaying images from right eye to left eye and back, 48 times every second -- create discomfort if used too long at a stretch, so ''Wings of Courage'' has the great virtue of lasting a mere 40 minutes. That's enough time to showcase its new-fangled technology without allowing its old-fangled narrative to become too tedious to bear. Less is more, even where gargantuan movie processes are concerned.

* ''Wings of Courage'' has a G rating. It is shown as an Imax 3-D attraction in theaters equipped for this process, and will be shown in two-dimensional form at other Imax theaters. The next Imax 3-D release will be ''Across the Sea of Time,'' directed by Stephen Low, about an immigrant boy's adventures in New York City.

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