Beginning this weekend, about 200 IMAX theaters are presenting HBO's Game of Thrones experience. It's a chance to see the final two episodes of last season — episodes that were particularly epic in scope, even by GoT standards — on some of the biggest screens out there. Plus, HBO promised some a sneak peek at Game of Thrones' upcoming fifth season (which, of course, has already leaked). I was excited enough by the event to brave Times Square — ostensibly the gaudiest, most stressful part of New York — to catch its first screening Thursday night at AMC's Empire 25 theater. And it was absolutely worth it.
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The pre-show chatter I could hear from my seat revolved around 4D ("I don't want dirty water splashed on my face") and the pros and cons of porn on the Oculus Rift. Mostly, though, it was people trying to figure out how best to roll up the free poster that was handed out. The volley of trailers began with Terminator: Genisys, of course, starring Emilia Clarke (aka "mother of dragons" Daenerys Targaryen), followed by Seventh Son (ahem), Focus with Will Smith (huh?), and Jupiter Ascending (hrm).
The lights went down. The on-screen graphic reminded everyone that this was the first time Game of Thrones has been on an IMAX screen. And then...
Cue the classic HBO static-and-ohm intro
I wondered ahead of the screening if HBO would try to blend the episodes together as a full two-hour movie. Instead we more or less experienced it as anyone would have on the small screen, each episode starting with the classic HBO static-fuzz-and-"ohm" intro followed by a "Previously on..." highlight reel and the show's iconic intro animation; each episode ended with the full credits and HBO's truncated outro fuzz. It's a stark reminder that while the experience was not TV (as the old HBO adage goes), it wasn't necessarily shot knowing it would end up on an IMAX screen, either.
But then the episode actually began, and within 10 minutes any doubt about the experience gave way to the pure joy of watching a giant riding a woolly mammoth. The first episode of the night, "The Watchers on The Wall," is one of the few hours in Game of Thrones to focus on a single story — in this case, The Battle of Castle Black, wherein the severely outnumbered Night's Watch (Jon Snow among them) has to fend off the Wall from the "wildlings," a more nomadic population that lives in the tundra north.
Giants! Mammoths! Blood! Gore! Fire!
It's one of the best episodes of a consistently strong show, but archers-and-swordsmen-defending-an-outpost is so familiar that it's hard not to mentally compare this to any number of big-screen fantasy films (Lord of the Rings comes to mind, naturally) and feel ambivalent. That's why the second episode, season four's finale "The Children," worked even better and drew a much stronger audience response. This is Game of Thrones at its best; a series of interwoven stories shot across the world, each having its own brutal moment to close out the season. Few people, if any, are going to this event to see these episodes for the first time. What everyone wants is to see their favorite characters in a premium theater setting.
I can't speak too much to the visual fidelity except to say that it never struck me as out of place. Movie-to-IMAX conversations are already pretty commonplace — relatively few films that show in IMAX are actually shot on IMAX cameras. Game of Thrones is shot on cinema-quality cameras like the Arri Alexa knowing full well it'll be seen on large home televisions with people looking frame by frame at a 1080p picture. The attention to detail has always been impressive; blown up to IMAX proportions, I can't say I noticed anything new, but it does give you a chance to take in, say, all the choreography of a knock-out, drag-out bloodbath in the snow.
Every moment punctuated with an enthusiastic crowd
But I'd argue the IMAX screen itself wasn't what made the experience fun as much as it was watching these episodes in a crowd of fans enthusiastic enough to sell out a Thursday night show.
That's the theater experience you can't easily replicate at home, no matter how big your next 4K television set is. Every moment was punctuated with raucous cheers (Stannis!) or complete, impactful silence (Tyrion!). The loudest cheers of the night came during a brutal fight between Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and The Hound (Rory McCann). It was great on TV at home; it was unbelievable on a screen that practically engulfed your entire field of vision, each blow heard clearly through surround sound speakers. I also couldn't help but think the whole time, "next time I see her on a screen this big, she better be wielding a lightsaber."
And then there was the final teaser. Watching it in a YouTube embed, sourced from a shaky phone cameras, it's tough to feel the same emotional wallop. On the plus side, however, I've been able to watch it several, several times now.
But while the season five trailer is a great bonus, it's not the main attraction. Price of admission notwithstanding, I would see Game of Thrones at a theater for every new episode. The crowd reaction. The impulse to not be distracted by phones (admittedly, it helps that these episodes were already known). The moment between hours to talk and stretch. The experience of seeing these episodes again in a new setting only served to highlight what makes the theater experience strong.
Let's hope this becomes an annual — if not weekly — tradition.