Sneak Peek: The Awesome Vertigo of Hubble 3D

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Every day, it seems like we’re racing to cover more and more 3D movie news.

For starters, Avatar just passed the $200 million mark on IMAX 3D screens alone. Beyond that, there’s the uproar over the 3D Alice in Wonderland, and how Disney is trying to limit the film’s run on movie screens.

Far more uplifting to me is the concept behind Hubble 3D, which is opening on select IMAX screens across the country March 19. Here is a film with a pretty simple concept: Take 3D IMAX cameras into space, during the 2009 repair mission of the Hubble Space Telescope, and offer audiences the best big-screen vision yet of what it’s like to orbit our planet.

It leads me to ponder: Could the 3D experience of Avatar – which converted a whole army of 3D skeptics, including myself, into recognizing 3D as a legit artistic aesthetic – turn a national mainstream audience on to 3D documentaries? If Planet Earth could be converted into an immersive 3D event? Or how about if you could walk into a volcano, plunge to the depths of the ocean or if something like Winged Migration could have you soaring next to the birds?

There are moments in Hubble 3D where you are floating in space, caught in the awesome vertigo of looking down – or is it up? – at Earth. With astronauts trained in IMAX cinematography, we are up in there in the shuttle cargo bay, gazing out at the spinning blue disc. It’s a concept that’s at once so simple yet so breathtaking.

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to a preview screening of about 15 minutes of the film – a decidedly rough cut that for a good chunk of time was a procession of static shots, all playing out without narration. And you know what? I thought it was absolutely hypnotic: High-def shots of an astronaut at work, racing around the equator. A delicate balancing act miles above the Pacific ocean.

Now granted, I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is quite possibly the best film ever made. I love all those long takes, the sort of outer space shots that allow your mind to get lost in contemplating the endless horizon. And I know that the final cut of Hubble 3D, with Leonardo Di Caprio providing narration, will be a bit peppier and punchier. But I’m hoping that they allow at least a few sequences to play out just like the excerpt I saw – with the astronauts bobbing in the air, focused on the excruciating minor tasks required to repair a telescope, with all of humanity spinning in the background.

I was transfixed, not just by the speed at with the Earth spins from this height, but also by the dedication of the astronauts and the utter fragility of a human being when viewed in this context. We really are minor players in this cosmic ballet.

So yes, the film looks damn impressive, and the 3D is engrossing, but I think part of the appeal here is that Hubble 3D is an event – something that requires you to go into a theater, turn down the lights, and activate your imagination. There was a time, before all the sci-fi movies and CG blockbusters, when we were all young and dazzled by the allure of touching the stars. And after watching just a portion of Hubble 3D, I was transported back to that state of naive curiosity and ecstacy. Astronauts are pretty damn cool, and orbiting Earth is better than flying atop a Banshee on Pandora.

Could this be the beginning of a whole new movie genre, about to capture the imaginations of 3D converts? I see the full movie in two weeks; I’ll let you know.

More at Techland: The top 10 spaceships of all-time.