In the future, shopping will be indistinguishable from entertainment. This, at least, is what the builders of the new $85 million Sony Metreon facility in San Francisco seem to fervently believe. It is also the exact reason that this monolithic edifice to commerce represents nothing less than the death of the philosophies and æsthetics by which San Francisco once proudly identified itself.
A mutant hybrid of movie complex, |bermall, and theme park, the Metreon is a slickly gleaming triumph of naked capitalism devoid of substance, yet the place implicitly begs you to believe that it is somehow more than merely hi-tech, chromed-out greed on a stick. The building itself casts long shadows over Yerba Buena Park, a place that although possessing a “Star Trek”-like æsthetic, felt pleasantly sunny and open before Metreon created its eclipsing Wall of China to one side. Metreon’s inhuman architecture, obviously designed upon a computer, gleams with a robotic sterility that archly implies that to allow people inside would merely soil the floors. Better to simply give them your money at the door and forego entrance entirely.
Metreon seeks to portray itself as a kind of corporate utopia. To this end, you can even purchase local currency from ATM-like machines that will convert your dollars or credit to an electronically-coded “Access Metreon Card” that can be used anywhere in the building. This is extremely practical, for example, if you want to let your brood run rampant but don’t want the kids to deal with filthy, bacteria-ridden cash.
On the entertainment side, San Francisco arguably does not need another movie gigaplex, and Metreon offers 15 new screens. Metreon’s only gimmick is the addition of an IMAX theater, including IMAX 3D for certain films. I viewed previews for both of the IMAX theater’s current offerings; “Everest,” basically a PBS documentary but REALLY BIG, and “Into the Deep,” which was nothing short of the best potential stoner flick since “Pink Floyd: The Wall.” “Deep” is meditative and dreamy, and the film’s New Age elevator music soundtrack, soothing blue hues, and inviting dimensionality leave you blissfully relaxed.
The IMAX 3D system is of the type that utilizes welding-visor-style glasses that have flickering liquid crystal lenses. These lenses receive an infrared signal that synchronizes them with the screen, upon which is projected two prints simultaneously. Shutters in the projector alternate the prints in time with the liquid crystal shutters of the glasses. Essentially, you view the left print with the left eye alone, and then a split-second later the right print with the right eye alone. Via persistence of vision, your brain fuses the separate two-dimensional images into one three-dimensional image. This technology greatly differs from 3D systems in which the two images are fused into one film print, and polarized glasses trick your eye into image separation. The resulting picture in IMAX 3D is breathtakingly crisp and dimensional, and it lacks the fuzzy blur found in competing older technologies. The projector is a computer-controlled behemoth that utilizes a 15,000 watt xenon water-cooled lamp to throw its image. A separate soundtrack is shipped on DVD, and uploaded to the system’s hard drive. Its computer then maintains sound sync with the image by keeping track of a time-code on the film stock, and can slightly speed up or slow down the music accordingly. In short, it’s damn cool.
Metreon also offers a few hyped-out-of-all-proportion “attractions,” if they can be so euphemistically called, as I typically found myself feeling as if I wanted to leave them; thus I will hereby refer to them as “repulsions.”
Maurice Sendak himself gave blessings to a “Where the Wild Things Are” interactive walk-through, based upon his beloved children’s storybook, placed right by a restaurant centered upon another Sendak classic, “In the Night Kitchen.” Naturally, in order to enter or leave this repulsion one must walk directly through the obligatory “Wild Things” merchandise store, which does, I will admit, have some nifty little stuffed monster figures and lovely T-shirts, if you go for that sort of thing. The best thing that can be said for the “Wild Things” experience is that it looks great, as if images from the book have been brought to three-dimensional realization. Unfortunately, anybody older than 6 will find their inner child bored out of its play-deprived skull by a distinct lack of anything truly interesting or imaginative during the walk-through, which is far too short, and is incredibly half-baked. Advice to parents; read your kids the book instead, and they will get a hundred times more play value making up their own versions of the story.
Another repulsion is “The Way Things Work,” based on David Macaulay’s book of the same name. This is a walk- and sit-through that shows you a few gee-whiz principles of physics, such as the fulcrum, to explain the workings of everyday devices such as toenail clippers. The repulsion features a three-screen theater presentation with a center, polarized-lens 3D screen — which seems terribly lame, by the way, if you’ve just been awed by the far superior 3D of “Into the Deep.” Again, when exiting, you are led directly into the tie-in merchandise store, which offers Macaulay’s signature wooly mammoth character emblazoned upon shirts, caps, and tote bags. Also available is a plush mammoth figure — stuffed, but alas, not mounted.
The final “fun” thing in the Metreon is the “Airtight Garage,” which is basically a videogame parlor with pretensions. The space is filled with lovely murals taken from the work of French sci-fi fantasy artist Moebius (a.k.a. Jean Giraud). Much of the interior architecture also consists of sculpted renderings of Moebius characters, and the gloom-infused atmosphere is designed to evoke a futuristic feel. One of the main games featured is called “Badlands,” and is a 3D environment through which you drive on an ore-runner, scavenging pieces of “cold gold” and shooting at competing opponents. The game pods are individually sealed units mounted upon hydraulics that lurch you around as you steer over the tilting terrain of the game-world. The ore-runners are extremely difficult to steer, and you often find yourself going exactly the direction you didn’t want; definitely a repulsion. Another featured game, “Quaternia,” is nothing more than a watered-down version of “Quake” without the gore. The arcade’s only game really worth playing is the diverting “Hyperbowl,” in which a real bowling ball is used as a giant track-ball to control an onscreen ball through various “lanes” such as a rocking pirate ship or the streets of San Francisco.
The Garage’s dystopic vibe was much easier to bear than the Metreon’s Orwellian atmosphere, especially considering the sheer number of surveillance cameras in the building. Prophetically, when I went to view one of Metreon’s restaurants, called Jillian’s South of Market, I was immediately struck by the omnipresent image of a Big Brother-like magnified eye, an image from an N’Sync video that startlingly emanated a thousand-fold from a massive video wall.
The press tour felt eerily reminiscent of the beginning of “Jurassic Park,” when the main characters are led by a grinning Richard Attenborough past construction workers putting finishing touches on the visitor’s center to view a multimedia presentation. And exactly as the main characters “Jurassic Park,” I immediately got the sense that I was being sold a half-assed idea sugar-frosted with positive spin. Our guide was an unctuous PR flack who spoke a particularly obnoxious brand of doublespeak. When he introduced us to the food court area typical of many malls, a fellow member of the press made a remark about fast food. The flack immediately jumped back with, “Quick service food — not fast food.” I later asked the total cost of the facility, and the flack replied, “We don’t like to talk about development costs.” “Yes,” I replied, “but we like to ask.” If only Richard Attenborough were there.
Other tenants of the facility include one of the few Microsoft stores in existence, a Sony Playstation outlet, a Discovery Channel store, and naturally, two small Starbucks Coffee bars. In short, corporate America, present and accounted for.
Typically, a way of life is lost through gradual erosion. A long succession of tiny steps often leads a town, a culture, or a people away from what they once were. Upon reflection, a person looking back is often unable to pinpoint the exact moment when change occurred, or why.
In similar fashion, this town has been dying for years, its naive hippie soul plundered for quick and easy dollars when those once long-haired kids traded their love-beads for stock portfolios, and found that the high from money lasts longer than pot. The Metreon, its dull gleam like that of a lead bullet’s, has been abruptly fired into the brainpan of a once beautiful city, there to permanently lodge in the corpse of an already-dead San Francisco; a final gesture in a long downhill slide. Yet although this cold structure is merely the visible symptom of this negative change and not its source, its bad points vastly outweigh its good.
Arguably, as part of natural maturation, it was time for our fair city to grow out of its romantic, illusory notion of being a Shangri-La by the sea. Yet like Max, the protagonist of “Where the Wild Things Are,” I’d rather lose myself in a fantasy realm of my own making than confront the watered-down, thinly-painted lies peddled by the faceless corporate slugs who created this malevolent dream-killer called Metreon.