So far Imax has made just tentative overtures toward dramatic narrative, uncertain how to balance the audience’s theme-park-ride expectations from this format against conventions of story and character development. On the latter score, “L5: First City in Space” reps an awkward compromise — its mix of science, sci-fi and family entertainment is at once odd and bland, with precious little attention paid to building tension or performance finesse. As sheer visual stimulus, however, this 3-D featurette has consider-able appeal.
Bringing “actual NASA data to life,” the film imagines the first permanent human community in space — a vast “port city” with a population of 10,000, orbiting our outer solar system one hundred years from now. This multinational “world of perfect harmony and balance” is the only home seven-year-old Chieko (Rachel Walker) has ever known; her father (Denis Akiyama), mother (Genevieve Langlois) and grandpa (Colin Fox) are all resident specialized scientists.
Food, energy and all other life essentials are manufactured on-site, making L5 self-sufficient. But when the space station’s water supply is in danger of running out — a wee dilemma you’d think its leaders might have anticipated earlier — Chieko’s father volunteers to take a dangerous solo shuttle trip to the comet from which replenishing H2O might be harvested.
The film’s most striking elements are all in the realm of futuristic travelogue, as the grownup protagonist (voiced by Martha Henry) explains the technological progress that led to L5’s creation, then tours us through its workplace, residential, educational, agriculture and industrial facilities. Actual footage of Russia’s Mir space station is deployed amongst myriad computer-generated graphic effects that are impressive in their illusion of depth and scale. Highlights include a high-speed cruise along Mars’ surface, views of the space station’s exterior (looking rather like a jumbo hamster wheel), and a solar storm that buffets dad’s small vessel.
F/x are near-seamless; as long as it’s focused on hardware and the cosmos, “First City” is an eye-filling, imaginative pleasure. The human factor is far less successful, hobbled by stilted thesping, prosaic dialogue and timid stabs at suspense as dad completes his mission. Voiceover is heavily leaned on to connect parts that fall somewhere between pseudodocumentary and drama.
Though L5’s habitable interior may be a credible hypothesis (given much consulting input from NASA), it’s also rather dis-appointing — as in “Logan’s Run” 23 years ago, this future looks like a big, antiseptic mall, with an underpopulated feel and clothes that suggest the Gap will be with us for many decades to come. Sum result is a certain schizophrenia: A curio that’s truly out-of-this-world on some levels, but couldn’t be more flavorlessly earthbound elsewhere. The determination to construct an upbeat, inoffensive package suitable for all ages robs “L5” of any filmic personality; pic is rich as fantastical science come to life, but lifeless as narrative art.