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High Hopes

Wings of Courage is a grand, if failed, IMAX experiment

The very technology that makes IMAX 3D so lifelike is the same technology that makes it a barren vehicle for dramatic films. For every frame in which you can kiss Val Kilmer on the lips, you're required to sacrifice hundreds of frames of something much more important -- the very reasons you would want to kiss Kilmer's character to begin with.

The IMAX 3D format is huge; its film frame is ten-times larger than the conventional 35-millimeter frame. That bulky film stock is run through a twin-lensed camera that weighs nearly 600 pounds; it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that such a camera doesn't move easily. What's worse, the film stock is so massive that films are limited to roughly 40 minutes of running time -- unless, of course, you prefer to stop your story halfway through and switch out rolls on the IMAX 3D projectors. But that doesn't make sense from either a continuity or financial standpoint.

So you're left with something like Wings of Courage, the world's first dramatic IMAX 3D movie, which is currently sharing time with Into the Deep at Moody Gardens' IMAX 3D theater in Galveston. You're left with a film that's undeniably breathtaking in its technique and regrettably short on characterization and plot. It's another case of style over substance, only in jumbo size.

Wings of Courage is directed and co-written by Jean-Jacques Annaud, the French iconoclast who won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1977 for Black and White in Color and then went on to make such films as Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose, The Bear and The Lover. The filmmaker apparently loves a challenge, and he couldn't have found a better one than Wings of Courage if he'd been looking to solve the U.S. national debt.

In Galveston recently to promote the film, Annaud appeared as relaxed and loose as the curly white hair that framed his face. He openly addressed all the complications of producing a dramatic film in IMAX 3D, a format that challenged Annaud's time-tested ideas about filmmaking. The format's huge scale rendered editing and unusual camera angles all but useless, since those basic techniques, when intensely magnified, prove to be disconcerting for moviegoers. As a result, Annaud was required to shoot Courage as a series of master shots, scenes in which the dialogue and action flow without the benefit of editing. What's more, the camera's wide-angle perspective forced Annaud to block every scene down to the most minute detail on the fringe of the frame. The format's size and crystal-clear resolution (it's 16 times sharper than conventional 35-millimeter film) also made it impossible for the filmmaker to alter frames with digital equipment in post-production.

Still, despite all the complications, Annaud had plenty of resources at his disposal. Columbia, the studio that bankrolled this test project, gave the director a generous $15 million budget as well as a cast of bankable stars (Val Kilmer, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth McGovern). And then Annaud had his own experimental temperament to draw upon. After all, during his career, he has fearlessly flitted between comedies, mysteries and even 1992's soft-core sex drama, The Lover. The guy obviously loves a challenge.

"I feel inside me very refreshed when I change styles," he said. "I have such an appetite to discover verses using what I know and making it easy. I also feel every artist -- and I'm speaking as a Frenchman now -- needs a certain danger. I feel that comfort is not good for creation. So I like to put myself on an edge where I have a feeling that I may very well fall."

He doesn't exactly fall in Wings of Courage, though he comes close. This 1930s period piece is about a French pilot named Henri Guillaumet (played by Craig Sheffer of A River Runs Through It) who is drafted to deliver air mail over South America's treacherous Andes Mountains. The story, based on actual history, is custom-made for the 3D format, and not just because it allows for the requisite camera-soaring-over-the-ridge shot. The format's three dimensional illusion allows theatergoers to feel like they're actually trespassing across the jagged mountain range, suffering the same fate as the hero.

And suffer Guillaumet does. The pilot has been hired by Jean Mermoz (Kilmer) and Antoine de Saint-Exupery (Hulce), the pair who head Compagnie Generale Aeropostale, the first company foolish enough to think it could fly mail between France and South America. A vicious storm slices through the Andes and forces Guillaumet's biplane to land on a frozen lake.

The story becomes something of a survival tale. Guillaumet, with little food and no adequate clothing for the arctic mountain temperatures, struggles to find civilization, spurred on by his innate survival skills and an undying love for his wife, Noelle (McGovern).

Annaud does a splendid job of applying the 3D format to Guillaumet's plight. The director makes the fallen pilot's trek across the Andes a terrifyingly real man versus nature story. Guillaumet's enemies are the freezing temperatures, the wind, the impassable landscape, the seemingly endless and hopeless peaks between him and another living human.

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