Nobody knows for certain what life will be like when humans make outer space an integral part of their natural habitat. But informed speculation is a valuable tool as we move toward this evolutionary step, and it's hard to imagine a more vivid forum for such guesswork than IMAX 3-D, which fills a gigantic movie screen with images 10 times larger than those on conventional film.
The latest movie using this process, "L5: First City in Space," tells the story of Chieko, a likable youngster who has lived all of her seven years in an outer-space community populated by her parents and about 10,000 other adventurous people. Gravity comes from the rotation of the huge, wheel-shaped structure. Power comes from solar radiation and a fusion-based power plant. Hydroponic farming provides food, and raw materials are mined from an asteroid the community "captured" for that purpose.
Focusing mainly on the quality of life in this well-designed environment, "L5" doesn't have much of a story until Chieko's grandfather - the city's senior scientist - realizes that crucial life-support systems have been stretched as far as possible, and a crisis will occur unless a new water supply is found.
His solution is to lasso a nearby comet, diverting its orbit so that L5 can extract needed materials as it passes by. The plan is almost ruined when a robotic probe misfires, but Chieko's father saves the day by rocketing to the comet and setting things straight. Chieko herself narrates the adventure, looking back on it from her adult perspective as L5's mayor.
"L5" is only 35 minutes long, about the maximum allowed by current IMAX 3-D technology. Putting its emphasis on entertainment value, it offers more spectacle than substance, blending NASA imagery and computer-generated effects with studio scenes involving Chieko and her family. In keeping with today's political atmosphere, its social views are a mix of the conservative (individual gumption is all we need to solve common problems) and the liberal (our shared humanity should override national interests and racial divisions).
Supervised by Toni Myers with assistance from Allan Kroeker, who directed the live-action material, "L5" is now opening in theaters equipped for the Imax 3-D system. For sheer sensory impact, it's as big and bold as anything on screen this season.