ENLARGE The Empress (CPR 2816), a steam locomotive
John Denver used to sing about “Rocky Mountain High,” but though I’ve been to Colorado I’ve never seen the Rockies looking like they do in the new IMAX film “Rocky Mountain Express.”
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center opens the film on March 9 for an open-ended run in the Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Giant Dome Theater.
Spearheaded by young American railway superintendent William Cornelius Van Horne, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad began in 1881 and took four years, winding through incredibly difficult rocky and mountainous terrain on its path east.
Director Stephen Low retraces the original route on steam engine 2816, a locomotive built in 1930 which made its final run in 1960. But 2816 has since been completely rebuilt and has re-entered service as the Empress.
In 2012, “Rocky Mountain Express” was named best short subject film by the Giant Screen Cinema Association in an unprecedented tie with “To The Arctic” (also playing at the Fleet). The association also honored Stephen Low, Mark Poirier and Ralph Mendoza for best cinematography for “Rocky Mountain Express.”
This is the kind of story IMAX was made for. Filmed in 15/70 IMAX (70mm negatives, the world’s largest film format), the camera was mounted on a helicopter for the breathtaking aerial shots, and on the train itself for train’s-eye views of the transcontinental trip. Six-channel sound and an original score by Michel Cusson add to the experience.
There is liberal use of historical footage of the near-impossible construction, which required tunnels and even a section of spiral track to allow the train to get up enough speed to get over the mountains.
But this is as much a human story as an engineering feat. Failure and death, natural disasters such as mud and landslides and difficulties that slowed construction at one point to five feet per day are part of the saga too. The human cost was six men for every mile laid; many of those workers were Chinese.
“Rocky Mountain Express” – five years in the making – is a great story of human endurance and accomplishment. But mainly, it’s one heck of a good ride in the theater.
“Rocky Mountain Express” opens on Saturday, March 9, at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park in San Diego.