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Review by Elias Savada
Posted 5 November 1999


Directed by Al Giddings and David Clark.

Starring Dr. Carole Baldwin. 

Written by David Clark and Barry Clark.

IMAX, the really big-screen projection system that has captivated museum audiences and a growing number of commercial screens around of the world, is now even bigger than life on the seven-story tall screen at the Samuel C. Johnson Theater in the National Museum of Natural History here in Washington, D.C., with the world premiere this week of the latest monstrous 3-D presentation, Galapagos. This mini-feature adds an incredible dimension in granting viewers the widest panoramic vistas and the in-your-face close-up views of some of nature’s most interesting creatures. The logistical nightmare in preparing this forty-minute educational travelogue (more on that below) makes me wonder if watching films like this, even if your eyes are covered with oversized polarized glasses, is better than being there. IMAX films tend to be breath-taking in their scope and this one guarantees to knock your socks off but, if you’re too close to the screen, maybe give you a case of vertigo. Being up front in an IMAX auditorium positions you for an image several stories high; add in the 3-D factor and you might feel like you’re watching a giant version of The Blair Witch Project. It’s obviously a conditioned reflex concerning how we focus, in much the same way you might force focus on a finger held about a foot from your face and then trying to converge on the background. This is especially noticeable when the camera abruptly shifts from black lava rock landscapes to a closer examination of the archipelago’s denizens. At other times, you stretch out your hand in front of you to try and touch the fish in front of you. The filmmakers occasionally resort to the usual 3-D trick shots, including undersea laser beams or the heavy cable reaching out from deep in the screen background. Despite its lack of a dramatic punch -- the story is barely shown -- the film is a must see for its stunning three-dimensional exploration of the animals found among lush island vegetation or the sea creatures found deep within the ocean depths. As a medium for showing the study of evolution and biodiversity in this part of the world, this film can’t be topped.

The National Museum of Natural History has 7 million visitors per year, many of them now spending the extra $6.50 (adults) or a buck less for kids to watch oversized images of iguanas, sea lions, hammerhead sharks, moray eels, huge tortoises, and abundant other beasts strut their stuff. With only two IMAX screens in town (the other is at the National Air and Space Museum), the captive audience can lead to sizable profits and surprisingly large weekly per screen averages. For 1999, two of the top ten films (Everest and T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous) are IMAX productions. And while expensive to produce -- Galapagos cost $2,000 for every three minutes of film exposed -- they play continuously week after week. T-Rex has parked a nearly $25 million total, while Everest  has scaled $73 million.

The tapestry is diverse and the wildlife extraordinary off the coast of Ecuador as captured by the only two IMAX 3-D cameras in existence. Undersea director-cinematographer Al Giddings (The Deep, The Abyss, and Titanic) and documentary director-producer-writer David Clark split the machines to tackle above ground and underwater sequences, the latter providing for a lot of innovation to allow for sensational subsurface footage, including simulating life at 3,000 feet down. Using Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s Research Vessel SEWARD JOHNSON as the mother ship and the high-tech submersible JOHNSON-SEA-LINK, the research team of marine biologists, headed by Dr. Carole Baldwin of the Smithsonian Institution, a reluctant “star,” the formidable task of dealing with the film’s “heavy” -- the 1,700-pound camera surrounded by a large casing. It took ten people to get the camera in the water and between two and five to handle it afterwards. The sheer bulk of the contraption forced careful planning by the production team, as Giddings noted that “reloading film into the camera also took about an hour and a half.” From the look of the film you’d never know about the technical challenges involved.

Mark Isham, nominated for an Oscar for his music to A River Runs Through It, adds an out-of-world score that compliments the mesmerizing images, including a dark, tonal ominous riff when some dangerous morays unexpectedly creep up on Dr. Baldwin. Kenneth Branagh provides a sparse narration.

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