I’d review THE BOURNE LEGACY, but I didn’t see the movie I was meant to see

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It is easy, maybe even fair, to see The Bourne Legacy as cynical, as superfluous, or as a sign of ‘what’s wrong with Hollywood’, but, equally, I think that writer-director Tony Gilroy, who also scripted the films in the original trilogy, had a clear sense of what he wanted to do with this extension of the franchise: dig deeper into the intertwining of science, the state, and private enterprise, explore certain aspects of the risk society as experienced by many in post 9/11 America, trace the lines of economic globalization through one particular industry. However, I feel ill-equipped to move beyond these initial thematic observations because the film that I saw at the Regal Cinemas on ninth street in Corvallis this past weekend was so poorly projected that it is impossible to separate my response from the problems with the image.

The flaws in projection were noticeable from the first preview and advertisement: text and background elements were blurry, giving a fuzzy impression to the whole. In addition, the image was small, with empty screen space along both axes. It seemed as if everyone in the theater was taking note of these problems, and one patron in front of us eventually got up to complain to theater staff. When s/he came back, they told their companion that they had been informed that there are different projectors for previews and the film. So, we waited.

When the movie proper started, nothing changed. The same patron got up to point this out to staff and after a few minutes, someone did enter the projection booth. The size of the image was adjusted to fill the width of the screen, but not the length. The problems with image quality also remained. Eventually, I went out to the lobby to talk to someone about this problem and the manager went into the theater with me. We watched for a few minutes, and while s/he acknowledged that s/he could see the blurriness, s/he also told me that the there was nothing anyone on staff could do about the problem. An outside tech would be needed to make the necessary fixes. S/he also told me that the empty screen space at the top and bottom was left to preserve the wide screen presentation.

One thought that I shared with Anne-Marie was that the image looked how a 3-D film looks when you remove your glasses. After doing some research on this topic, it appears that there may be a reason for this.

Last year, Ty Burr, film critic at The Boston Globe, conducted an investigation into reports of overly dim projection in area theaters and discovered that in many places the problem was use of 3-D hardware configurations for 2-D movies. While dimness is the predominant issue when this happens, in a follow-up piece by Roger Ebert, the word “muddy” is also used to describe the effect, and this is a perfect word for what we were viewing on Saturday.

One of the hints that Burr gives for determining whether a theater you are in is using the 3-D set-up for a 2-D film is to look for two beams of light coming from the projection room, which there was during our screening of The Bourne Legacy.

According to Burr and Ebert, the powers that be at many theater chains have determined that changing the projection hardware is not worth the time and effort between films or screenings. And in the broader picture, the shift to digital has accelerated the de-skilling of film projection. Indeed, I have my doubts that the theater manager had any clue as to the nature of the problem, nor any sense of urgency about correcting the issue. After the film, the patron who made the original complaint advised the manager to look at the film during the closing credits where the flaws in the image were most visible. S/he nodded and proceeded to sell popcorn to the next group of customers.

It seems likely that the issue of image quality and that of image size were unrelated, unless the muddiness was more an artifact of compression than hardware configuration (or some other bug in either hardware or software). But assume that what the manager told me is true, and that the unused screen space was the result of, essentially, letterboxing to preserve the original aspect ratio of the film. The entire time I felt as if I was watching a really big television, and not a movie in a theater. The unused space made me conscious of the screen in a way that the makers of films like The Bourne Legacy undoubtedly do not want for viewers. If this kind of presentation is going to be a feature of digital projection, that would seem to have profound implications for how movies are seen and read. The immersive experience that defines mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and moviegoing will become more elusive, and the separation between home viewing and theatrical presentation will narrow even further, and not because of an increase in the quality of what can be viewed at home, but from making the theater experience more like being at home.

The irony here is that Regal has started to run this promo during previews, the main point of which is to see movies in the theater because watching them at home diminishes the work.

We were shown this promo not once, but twice before The Bourne Legacy.

Later that night, feeling like more of the same, we watched The Peacemaker (1997) via Netflix streaming. Image quality was better and, in context, the blank spaces on the screen made sense and are a welcome adaptation to smaller screens. I do believe that even the most small scale and intimate of films made for the big screen are ideally seen in the theater, but that ideal is undermined when exhibitors don’t take their responsibilities seriously.

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30 thoughts on “I’d review THE BOURNE LEGACY, but I didn’t see the movie I was meant to see

  1. I love that you brought this up in such a cogent, coherent manner. It needed to be said, and everyone’s been thinking it but not speaking up. We invest so much of ourselves in the cinema-going process that it’s a gutteral disappointment when the experience we desire is not what we have.

  2. My dad used to work part time as a movie theater projectionist way back before digital was even a dream. He took great pride in the quality of the presentation onscreen and would have been appalled by the disinterest and/or ignorance of the theater manager you describe!

    Did you consider contacting that theater chain’s management company about the problem? I’m certain they would like to know that their outlet is not running films the way they are supposed to.

    • We have talked about contacting customer service at Regal, but have not actually done so yet. The pieces from Burr and Ebert suggest that the decision to not reconfigure projection hardware when switching from 3-D to 2-D features is a matter either of corporate policy or non-policy in the sense that the Powers that Be are not offering direction to individual theater managers on the subject, nor is the training and knowledge needed to do so being provided.

    • Yes, we certainly talked about that. Generally, I think I would only ask for a refund if I left a film in the first few minutes. Since we chose to stay despite the poor projection, I think we also lost any grounds for a refund. Had we made the other choice, I would have hoped that the theater manager would have honored a request for money back or, better yet, made the offer before having to be asked.

  3. Movies were made to be seen a certain way. If theaters are lazy or don’t want to spend the money to train their staff how to go from 2D to 3D in the film room, then they don’t deserve the business of people paying to see movies there. What if people went into a 3D movie, expecting to see 3D and then didn’t get any of the effects. There would be so much more backlash. Sad. Hopefully you have another theater you can go see The Bourne Legacy in.

    • Seeing it at another theater is unlikely. One of the downsides of living in a smaller city is fewer options for moviegoing. Corvallis has two mainstream first-run theaters and no second-run house. The two first-run theaters have territorial agreements that tend to mean that many films show at one or the other.

      • My brother lives in Liberty, and I’m pretty sure there aren’t even any theaters there at all. He says it’s always a big deal to go to the movies, because you have to figure out what movie you want to see and then find a theater within 50 miles showing it.
        You should do a dvd review when it comes out. I’d like to know how you really felt about seeing it in all it’s digital glory – from your “small” television. :)

  4. They tapped these 3D things just to get people go back to watching the big screens and to get cinema industries to be in running with home theaters, blurays etc. Everythings on 3D now! Some people like me,however, just don’t enjoy this optical fx. This is one reason why I haven’t been to the movies since — believe me — The Bourne Ultimatum! And the only reason I get to watch this 4th installment is when I won the Asian red-carpet premiere ticket :] Care to see → http://wp.me/pcoJO-3mF

  5. I don’t understand how they could just blithely ignore the complaints, the quality of the screening is why you pay money to go see a movie. Quite frankly, people will wait for the DVD if they want to have less of an experience.

    (Also wanted to say I totally agree with your first few paragraphs about Bourne Legacy, loved it.)

    Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

    • I likely won’t, at least not in this context. See my reply to MJ Connor re: theater options in my town. I am too conscious of how the viewing conditions affected my response to review based on this experience. One reaction I had was this film felt “smaller” and less polished than the previous three, or certainly the prior two. There is no chance that that reaction was not shaped by how I saw the movie.

  6. Working in a similar capacity, I have to sympathise. If there was nothing the staff could do, there was nothing the staff could do. I’m always constantly surprised at the way people react when I tell them certain things are out of stock at my work, they always look at me as if to say ‘so what are you gonna do about it?’, when the truth is, there is nothing I can do. I cannot pull things out of thin air, much like the staff at the cinema could not pull good image quality out of thin air. If the equipment needs an outside worker, I doubt they were lying. Please don’t mistake their lack of resources for apathy. I’m sure had you left they would have offered a refund.

    • I agree that badgering on-site staff to fix this problem when they were not equipped to deal with it would have been inappropriate or obnoxious, and I don’t think that anyone at the screening I was at did that. I do think that that the manager should have taken more of an interest in fact-checking the problem for communication to those in the organization who could address the issue, or even to make a plea to be given the necessary resources to address these kinds of complaints at the theater level. This is simply not a problem for which there is no accountability, even if that accountability lies somewhere other than with the immediately available personnel. And, yes, I’m sure we would have received a refund if we had decided to leave the movie.

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  8. Rochelle Karina

    Well said! I am surprised that the theater did not offer a pass or something as an apology. We had a similar experience at a Cinemark theater during The Avengers, there were serious problems with the projection, the staff eventually did fix them, and even “rewound” the movie to the point before the problems started. As we were leaving the theater, there was a manager handing out passes, thanking everyone for their patience, apologizing for the less than stellar experience and saying “please come back again.” We left feeling like valued customers.

    And quite honestly, that’s why we go to a movie theater – we pay theater prices to have an experience that we can’t have at home.

    • I think had there been a larger crowd at this showing that there may have been some attempt at compensation, if not addressing the issue (again, I accept that the on-site staff may not have been equipped to fix the problem). On the other hand, this is kind of a shaggy dog of a theater, especially for a corporate chain, and while we’ve had a lot of great experiences seeing films there, we’ve also had days where screenings are late and we were told, “The films are running late today”, as if the movies just showed themselves. So, I’m not sure how deep the customer service ethic goes. Most of the people working there appear to be high school or college students, including the managers.

  9. At today’s prices for entry and nibbles, I would have demanded a refund. When we went to the theater to see Men in Black 3, supposedly in 3D, we got no 3D effect and, eventually, removed the 3D specs to see a clearer, brighter picture.

  10. This was definitely a customer service problem and management that either wasn’t empowered to take action or was to indifferent to take action. I’m glad to have the Alamo Drafthouse theater here in Austin and haven’t set foot in a regular theater in close to 7-8 years. Once while watching a movie there they had several projector problems, at the end staff was at both exits handing out free passes (which we could even use on opening weekend) and apologizing for the problems.

    As staff, there are times you can’t do anything, which is why management is supposed to step in. If even one of those patrons decides to think twice before spending money at the theater, it’s lost revenue.

    Sorry you had a bad experience.

    • Ha. I wish that Corvallis were big enough to support a place like the Alamo Draft House. When I lived in Portland, we had many great options for where, and how, to see films. Unfortunately, Corvallis, while a university town, is relatively small. We have the two first-run theaters and one art house with very small “auditoriums”.

  11. I had something similar happen at a second-run/cheap theater in town when I went to see Kung-Fu Panda 2. The image was a third-higher than it should be, cutting off the top of the screen. In some of the previews, it looked like an art-style choice. The projector was adjusted, but a large chunk of the screen.
    Then, the movie started. The opening sequence of Kung Fu Panda 2 is a gorgeous piece of animation, and we could only see 2-3rds of it. I ventured out, and I was impressed that the staff took care of it quickly. However, I missed most of the intro.

    As a huge film nerd/graduate of a film program, I’m thinking there’s a lot that an expert on spectator theory could do with this incident.

    • Yes, I think that the way that digital is shifting the way films not only get made, but get seen will be an excellent subject for research in film studies in the coming years.

  12. I haven’t seen a film in the theater in ages. The last movie I remember seeing in the theater? Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Before that, it was Return of the King. People these days seem to want to talk through the entire movie, which is really irritating, especially when you consider how much it costs to go to a movie now! So I just stay home, save my money, and wait until the movie comes out in a few months on dvd. I may be missing out on seeing it as the film maker intended it to be seen, but it’s not worth the hassle or effort in my mind.

  13. I never heard of that happening before, what a disappointment that must have been. I definitely would have left with no hesitation. Good post.

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