Though the encumbrance of caves would seem to work against the bigscreen aerialist strengths of MacGillivray Freeman Films, the firm’s latest Imax featurette, “Journey Into Amazing Caves,” reaps a bounty of astonishing airborne shots, a dazzling array of Western Hemisphere locations and creative angles that capture the totality of cave interiors. At the same time, docu can’t avoid being a bit dry and dull: Without a dramatic framework, the film recording of caving can’t hope to match the excitement, mystery and dread of the caving experience itself. Brevity is a plus here, making this a respectable follow-up to MacGillivray Freeman’s Oscar-nominated “Dolphins” and ensuring a smooth B.O. journey through the Imax educational market.
Expanding upon his focus on female scientists in “Dolphins,” helmer Steve Judson profiles two different but complementary women cavers who combine outdoor athleticism with lab room patience. Biologist Dr. Hazel Barton and cave ecologist Nancy Aulenbach are seen at the outset descending down rope extensions to the entrance of a cliff cave above Arizona’s Little Colorado River. Once inside, Brit Barton studies tiny cave-dwelling life forms called extremophiles (so-called because they live in extreme climates of heat, cold and light) while Southerner Aulenbach examines the cave walls to get a sense of the life and age of the cave system.
The Arizona section is the first of pic’s three sequences, and it allows Judson’s helicopter-borne cameras wonderful latitude to swoop in and out of canyons, over mesas and above the aqua-blue river to capture the sheer exhilaration of the scientific adventure.
One of the central goals of the duo’s explorations is to find organisms among the hardy extremophiles which might be able to combat disease, making their work not so different from biologists exploring the rain forests for rare plant curatives.
This is why they take the offer, care of vet caver Janot Lamberton, to check out ice caves in Greenland, where centuries-old organism samples can be found. Barton stays at camp, leaving the risky stuff for lifelong caver Aulenbach. This adventure results in pic’s most awesome images, in which tiny humans dangling from ropes like bracelet charms are enveloped in the ghostly blue of the vertical ice caves. In the docu’s one dramatic interlude, Lamberton even descends a cave formed only hours before, when dropping temperatures turned a waterfall to ice — a truly death-defying move.
Pic then travels to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, specifically near the Maya ruins at Tulum near the Belize border, where Barton dives in underwater caves, or cenotes, formed during the Ice Age. Barton dives for considerable distances in submerged caverns where it is hard enough for bodies to maneuver through some of the passages, let along bulky Imax cameras, and the underwater lensing here by Wes Skiles and Howard Hall is especially remarkable.
The sum, however, never rises above the level of the educational film, because the emotional dimensions of caving are never given full expression and the rough edges of superior docu-filmmaking are — per the usual Imax format practice — smoothed off.
Production utilized Kodak’s new Vision Premiere stock, which produces extraordinary resolution accentuated by the large-screen format. New arrangements of mostly old Moody Blues tunes on the soundtrack are just this side of Muzak, while Liam Neeson delivers a spare but heartfelt reading of the overview narration.