Wide Open Sky

I watched Top Gun: Maverick again this week, and it still rules the second time (it’s fundamentally a movie about people who are really good at their specific jobs doing their jobs really well which is something I love [see also: The West Wing, Star Trek]). This time, I got to see it in IMAX and if there’s a movie worth seeing on an enormous screen, it’s the one with fighter jets and dogfight football. And lemme tell you, Maverick uses it to great effect.

IMAX’s whole schtick is that it’s a bigger screen with a bigger aspect ratio and bigger sound. And that’s all really cool, but one thing I loved about Maverick in IMAX was its use of the aspect ratio.

See, IMAX cameras use bigger film and so can be projected differently than standard film (IMAX-certified cameras are digital ones that come close enough quality-wise). The huge film frames open up the top and the bottom of standard cinematic widescreen. It’s why if you see a movie in an IMAX theatre there will be parts where the image takes up the entire massive screen; Dune and Not Time To Die both feature sequences where it gets real big. It’s cool, yes, —and often marketed as such— but aspect ratios are also really useful for storytelling.

There’s the usual way of doing things, like Grand Budapest Hotel or Everything Everywhere All At Once using different aspect ratios (from typical 2.39:1 to television’s current 16:9 to the old broadcast standard of 4:3) to signify different eras. Scott Pilgrim gets more creative, tightening to a wider aspect ratio during fights to make it all seem more epic. In IMAX, Maverick does the opposite, expanding the frame here and there to make everything seem more big and more incredible.

Part way through the movie it looks like the mission everyone’s training for is impossible. So Maverick ‘borrows’ a jet and flies the course, acing it to everyone’s amazement and his superior officers’ frustration. Y’know, Maverick stuff. Anyway, once Maverick kicks the plane into high speed, the aspect ratio changes from 2.39:1 to IMAX’s 1.90:1. For the rest of the sequence that’s where we are, for the shots of Maverick in the cockpit, the shots of the plane flying through the air, the shots of the people at base following his progress. Combined with the camerawork and editing, the final effect is a breakneck sequence as Maverick pulls off the impossible. When the next scene rolls around, we’re back in conventional widescreen.

This isn’t a simple matter of “we shot this in IMAX so we’ll show it such” given that the sequence’s opening looks to have been shot with the same cameras. Rather, it was a deliberate choice to open up the frame during Maverick’s run, to bring that intensity and awe to the viewer. Even if you don’t consciously notice it, a part of you feels that there’s suddenly more to take in and more to see — the perfect atmosphere for a fighter jet pulling off impossible maneuvers. 

It’s all part of the ~magic~ of storytelling, the little bits of craft that go into making something work. If it’s not clear, I really dig Top Gun: Maverick. It’s a great story excellently told, yes, but it’s also one that does what it does so dang well. Everyone and everything involved is dedicated to telling that story the best it can be, from Tom Cruise down to the aspect ratio.

Again, Top Gun: Maverick rules.

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