It was either “Oppenheimer” or the monarch butterfly migration; Cillian Murphy as the father of the atom bomb or Otto the sea lion pup in a heart-warming coming-of-age tale.

In the end, the Maryland Science Center chose to keep showing documentaries about mountain ecosystems and the animal wonders of the oceans on its five-story IMAX screen and not “Oppenheimer,” one of the most anticipated movies of the summer. The decision came down to the film’s three-hour run time.

“It was a thoughtful decision,” said Chris Cropper, spokesman for the Maryland Science Center. “[The documentaries] are an important part of what we offer. We didn’t want to take that away from our summer guests. Had [the film] not come out in our high summer season, we probably would have shown it.”

Cropper explained that to show “Oppenheimer,” which opens Thursday in some theaters and opens in wide release Friday, the Science Center would have had to jettison four of its regular programs, which run 45 minutes each. Not that devotees of director Christopher Nolan and his moviemaking would sympathize.

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For those who know nothing about the fuss made over Nolan’s latest work, and why it matters whether you see it at an IMAX theater or a regular screen, it all comes down to size and scale.

Nolan is famously enamored of the IMAX format which, to put it simply, captures much larger images in much greater detail. IMAX uses 70mm film that produces an area more than eight times the size of standard 35mm film, which is why IMAX theaters have such giant screens. Additionally, the resolution far exceeds even that of modern high-definition television screens. IMAX movie frames contain 18,000 pixels compared to 1,920 on HD televisions or 4,000 on ultra-HD TVs.

Nolan’s “Dark Knight” in 2008 was the first Hollywood film to employ IMAX cameras. He’s shot all of his movies since using IMAX equipment. The most advanced cameras that exist were used to shoot “Oppenheimer,” a biopic and historical thriller about the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the first atomic bomb during World War II. Prints of the movie are 11 miles long and weigh 600 pounds, according to an Associated Press article.

“We knew that this had to be the showstopper,” Nolan told the AP. “We’re able to do things with picture now that before we were really only able to do with sound in terms of an oversize impact for the audience — an almost physical sense of response to the film.

“The sharpness and the clarity and the depth of the image is unparalleled. … You’re getting a feeling of 3D without the glasses. You’ve got a huge screen and you’re filling the peripheral vision of the audience. You’re immersing them in the world of the film.”

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If you’re now convinced you must see the movie on IMAX, it’s a little more complicated, because not all IMAX is created equal. Nolan and his true acolytes insist you watch it on a true film projector. Most theaters, including the Cinemark Egyptian in Hanover and the AMC Loews White Marsh in Baltimore, will show the digital version. If the Maryland Science Center were showing the movie, it would be on a digital projector, too.

Some would say the experiences are identical, but Nolan is a true believer in the uniqueness of film, calling it the “gold standard of motion picture photography.”

There are only 19 theaters in the country showing the 70mm film release. The closest is the Regal UA in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles outside of Baltimore.

Only 11 states have theaters showing it in IMAX 70mm film; California has the most, with seven; Texas and Michigan have two each. Film buffs who live in the Mountain West, the Pacific Northwest, or the desert Southwest don’t have any practical options — which is yet one more reason it’s a good day to be a Baltimorean.

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.

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