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screen time

Going to the movie theatre today involves an unspoken audience expectation.

Thanks to the widespread adoption of digital projectors, we walk into a screening anticipating a seamless visual presentation, free of scratches or awkward splices. Assuming there are no masking or lighting issues in the projection booth – a big if at some larger multiplexes – everything is expected to run smoothly and efficiently. If a bit soullessly.

That staid ritual was nicely subverted, though, the other night, when the Cinesphere at Ontario Place hosted a 10th-anniversary screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

The Cinesphere, reopened this past fall after a long dormancy, is now the only theatre in Toronto with the capability to screen IMAX films in both laser digital projection and 70 mm film. Yes: actual celluloid. Which means that for the first time in far too long, audiences were treated to a 70 mm IMAX print of Nolan’s blockbuster – and in a theatre explicitly designed to maximize every possible facet of the medium, to boot.

As the film literally unspooled on Saturday night, the mechanical whir of the 70 mm projector combined with the print’s tiny physical scratches to trigger an almost Proustian moment. This was what the moviegoing experience was like not too long ago, and damned if it wasn’t perfect in its imperfection. (I experienced a similar sensation this past fall, when TIFF hosted a 70 mm print of Dunkirk; although the Cinesphere isn’t dedicated solely to Nolan’s filmography, the two go nicely hand-in-hand.)

The movie itself, too, was a much-needed blast of nostalgia. Ten years on, the superhero epic has easily remained the standard-bearer for what’s become the dominant genre of the film industry. Rewatching the film with a sold-out audience in its entirety – in the format Nolan explicitly intended it to be seen – was something close to a revelation.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.The Associated Press

No doubt, The Dark Knight has huge third-act challenges, and much of the dialogue by Nolan and his brother Jonathan is so on-the-nose that Oswald Cobblepot would hang his beak in shame. But most misgivings are overruled by the Michael Mann-aping bank robbery scene at the beginning, Bruce Wayne’s assault on a Hong Kong skyscraper and absolutely anything Heath Ledger does as the Joker.

The absurd majesty of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s BWAH-BWAH-BWAH score overwhelms in the best way when delivered via the Cinesphere’s 12-channel-plus-sub-bass system. And whenever Nolan’s 70 mm IMAX images dominate the screen – about 20 minutes of the film was shot using the large-format system – there is an honest sense of total immersion.

What’s more, not one audience member in the sold-out auditorium Saturday night dared leave their seat during the film’s 152-minute spectacle. I didn’t witness a single cellphone being whipped out, and chatter was at a bare minimum. It was the rare instance where content and market perfectly aligned with venue – a modern moviegoing experience like no other.

Of course, that is a beyond-privileged thing to write – that any viewing of The Dark Knight or other large-scale blockbuster in a different capacity is, and will forever be, inferior. There is just one Cinesphere, and there are only a handful of Dark Knight screenings left to play (the engagement runs until Aug. 30).

But the movie business, especially the exhibition side, doesn’t care for fairness.

And right now, the Cinesphere is the hero audiences both need, and deserve.

The Dark Knight: The IMAX Experience in 70mm Film runs through Aug. 30 at the Cinesphere at Ontario Place (