IMAX Review: Journey to Mecca

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The Pitch: What drives a man to spend 18 months of his life journeying across the desert?

The Review: The IMAX format was, until a few years ago, the domain of nature documentaries and the occasional space exploration movie. Then big budget directors cottoned on to the potential of the format, and movies like Avatar and The Dark Knight have added significant proportions to their box office take with their extended runs in the format. Now that 3D is entering the home, it remains the last real experience that you cannot in some way capture in the home cinema (unless you have a 70 metre hole in your back garden you need to find a way of filling).

But in among the blockbusters, it’s still possible to find original IMAX content. Occasionally, something comes along that can only truly successfully be expressed as an idea with the scope that the IMAX format provides, and Journey to Mecca is such an idea. Ibn Battuta was the original world traveller; over nearly 30 years, he ventured from his home in North Africa and crossed continents, visiting China and India and many places in between. But his original motivation was to leave home to conduct the pilgrimage to Mecca that his faith required of him, a journey that would take him 18 months and see his willingness and commitment tested to the full in the process.

So this is not a movie about the lifetime of travels, but rather an attempt to use a historic character to put that journey in the context of what the Hajj means to Muslims. The fact that the pilgrimage is made significantly easier by modern forms of travel does not diminish its importance within the faith, but seeing the desolate landscapes stretching out as far as the eye can see on the big screen does help to give some sense of what level of commitment would have been required in Battuta’s time to make the journey. Chems-Eddine Zinoune, who tragically died in a car accident before this film was released, brings both a sense of the arrogance needed to take on the journey in the manner he did originally, and the humility needed to see it through to its conclusion.

But other than the desert scenery and occasional shots of pilgrims in the caravan from Damascus to Mecca, there’s not a huge amount in that part of the story to require the IMAX format. What does demand that view, and what adds perspective to our view of the journey, is the modern day footage of the Masjid al-Haram mosque that forms the focal point of the Hajj. The photography, especially the time lapse shots showing the sheer volumes of people engaged in the rituals, is able to give a sense of the devotion inspired in individuals by their religion, without the need to preach about that religion. While anyone looking for a deep understanding of Islam may be better served elsewhere, anyone looking to understand how someone’s faith can require them to make such a long and testing journey need look no further.

Why see it on IMAX: The combination of the desert vistas from the historic elements, and the contemporary footage showing the sheer numbers taking that journey today, make this worth seeing on the big, big screen.

The Score: 7/10

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