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

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.