Laurence Alster joins spacewalking astronauts and watches sharks glide by while diving off California. It's almost real and it's made possible by the latest cinema technology
John Cleese is a tall bloke at the best of times. As the star-turn in a film showcasing the new British Film Institute's London IMAX cinema he has grown even taller: as high as five London buses piled on top of each other, in fact. It is an awesome sight.
The IMAX (pronounced eye-max) cinema boasts the biggest screen in Britain, dwarfing the existing IMAX screens at The Trocadero in London and the Museum of Film, Photography and Television in Bradford. It cost pound;20 million to build and is housed in a multi-storey, glass-enclosed cylinder which towers over its site on the roundabout outside Waterloo station.
The cinema opened this month, but IMAX lens technology first appeared at EXPO 70 in Osaka, Japan. It allows the projection of pin-sharp images on a screen so enormous that you feel enveloped by the spectacle. Add to this a 11,600-watt digital surround-sound system delivered through 44 speakers, and the effect is extraordinary. When an explosion blows Cleese into the stratosphere, the rapid change of perspective and accompanying sound-effects make your head spin.
To achieve these overwhelming images the seats are set at an incline that ensures optimum spectator involvement by extending the screen beyond the peripheral vision of the audience. But don't expect to see Arnold Schwarzenegger magnified into an even greater colossus - IMAX films have to be specially made to suit the technology, and so far that means documentaries rather than Hollywood blockbusters.
Destiny in Space, the first of the cinema's current two main features, is a meditation on current and future exploration of the heavens. There are spectacular views of the vastness of the firmament, and when a space shuttle is hurled into the Florida sky from Cape Canaveral, the noise could tear wallpaper. Spacewalking astronauts repairing the faulty Hubble telescope make you swoon with vertigo, while the switchback effect of computer-generated flights over the surface of Jupiter and Mars demands an iron stomach.
For younger children, Paint Misbehavin' is a riotous 3-D cartoon viewed through wraparound specs. You end up dodging gobs of colour that appear to fly off the the screen.
But it is the main presentation, Into the Deep, which really demonstrates the potential of this new cinematic experience. This film doesn't so much reveal the mysteries of marine life as immerse you right in it. Off the coast of southern California, a battle-scarred shark gives you a menacing once-over before gliding past your shoulder. Then an octopus almost plops into your lap. Schools of mackerel sweep above your head, and some of the audience can't help but reach out to try to touch them.
It is terrific entertainment, but is it education? Alex Patrick, the IMAX education officer, says: "At this particular IMAX we intend only to show films with a definite educational benefit. This is what the cinema is for, and we mean to make it as effective as possible." She and her team have designed a combined GCSE and A-level media studies teaching resource pack, and there will soon be similar provision for GNVQ leisure and tourism. In preparation are free resource materials linked to science, art, English and history.
For teachers who wish to reinforce lessons about sea and space, tie-in school visits to the London Aquarium and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich can be arranged. The teaching pack for Into the Deep, for example, reinforces the scientific elements of the film - the way an octopus changes colour, or the behaviour of the sea urchin can be followed up at the aquarium and back in the classroom.
There are also links with the nearby Museum of the Moving Image, from which pupils can follow a trail of film history that will end with IMAX. Forthcoming attractions at the cinema include Fantasia 2000, a Disney re-working due in January. Some 80 new IMAX films are in production, and many others are on show at the other IMAX cinemas, including Antarctica, Tropical Rainforest and Grand Canyon.
Bigger is not always better. But the IMAX cinema, with its capacity to make you feel part of an adventure as massive as the space programme or as personal as a dive in the Pacific, can make a complex subject truly vivid. There can be few better ways of showing audiences, of whatever age, how large a subject life can be.
The BFI London IMAX Cinema, 1 Charlie Chaplin Walk, South Bank, Waterloo, London SE1 8XR. School pupils: pound;3 per film; one free teacher's place per 10 pupils. For group bookings: 0171-902 1220; free teacher and trainee teacher screenings for each new film. Information and advance bookings: 0171 902 1234