One would expect an IMAX movie about professional auto racing to be wall-to-wall action and sound, but this one directed by veteran Simon Wincer (who also helmed Disney’s recent big-screen offering “The Young Black Stallion”) proves surprisingly earnest and sedate. Rather than putting us behind the wheel or in the middle of the track for a full fifty minutes, “NASCAR: The IMAX Experience” turns out to be the sort of perfunctorily informative instructional film that might be the first leg on a guided tour of a NASCAR museum. And though at one point narrator Kiefer Sutherland says “Pass out the earplugs” (in a sequence about the sound emitted by the cars’ powerful engines), the picture is much less noisy than you might think: most of the IMAX concert movies have been far more raucous than this one.
Of course the format can do impressive things with almost any subject, and NASCAR is no exception. There are moments here that work nicely: a crash scene in which a detached tire flies out into the audience puts the excellent 3D system to good use. But for the most part this is an oddly staid and conventional treatment in which the potential of the huge IMAX screen and its massive speakers isn’t fully exploited. There’s lots of rather tedious information about how stock car racing developed from the habit of moonshiners souping up their coupes to outrun lawmen and eventually challenging each other in out-of-the-way places just for fun (enthusiasts may be amused by actual drivers and Association officials playing parts in the recreations), and a sort of paean to the founders of the Association (especially “Big” Bill France, who created it in 1947) and to drivers who have become celebrities over the years. (The inevitable section dealing with Dale Earnhardt is practically hagiographical.) Then we’re shown the incredible devotion of the millions of fans who are drawn to the present-day races, and plenty of detail about how the cars are designed, built and transported and the way in which the drivers and pit crews train and operate. Race footage gets more frequent as the film goes on, but even then the approach comes across as more promotional than viscerally exciting.
Of course, these words are written from the outside, by somebody who doesn’t really understand the attraction of taking an RV into some immense, overcrowded parking lot to get a chance to watch, from a great distance, a bunch of what appear to be moving billboards speeding endlessly around a track (and then spend what must feel like weeks negotiating one’s departure afterward), or of idolizing guys (this seems a singularly male occupation) whose range of talent appears to be limited to facility in navigating cars at great speed (and in very confined spaces) for glory and money. Indeed, what emerges most of all from the IMAX “NASCAR,” for this uncommitted viewer at least, is the utterly crass commercialism of the whole enterprise: barely an inch of chassis is free from advertisement, and names of sponsors are emblazoned on every available surface at the tracks. It’s a salutary experience for anybody who complains of product placement in movies, which is irksome enough but positively amateurish compared to what’s practiced here.
Enthusiasts will, of course, feel differently about this movie than those of us who can take NASCAR or leave it (and in many cases, preferably the latter). But even they may be disappointed that it fails to take full advantage of the IMAX format to put them in the driver’s seat (or at least the front row of the stadium) more excitingly. In the final analysis, though the subject may be more interesting and the production definitely more lavish, the movie uncomfortably resembles the sort of instructional film students often suffer through in the public schools.