The ecology of Baja California is more intriguing and mesmerizing than the new Imax film about it, “Ocean Oasis.” This routine nature docu exemplifies the problem that often occurs with large-screen pics taking on a vast natural territory: When a mundane, educational approach is adopted, even the biggest cameras tend to reduce the subject rather than excite the eye and mind. Vet nature filmmaker Soames Summerhays’ latest adventure preemed at the Smithsonian Museum in D.C. in September and has been rolling out internationally at various science museum theaters since, but if audible yawns during a paid-audience screening are any indicator, “Oasis” isn’t likely to gather in the green typical at these venues.
Rather than describe what is vitally unique about the 700-mile-long northwestern Mexico peninsula and the Sea of Cortez (sometimes given the less poetic appellation of Gulf of California) that is protected from the Pacific currents and tides to the west, Summerhays and crew immediately dive into a zone extremely familiar to Imax fans: a naturalist swimming with whales. The scientist, Mercedes Eugenia Guerrero-Ruiz, is deeply in love with her subject, but — outside of the haunting, unexpectedly disturbing contemplation of a dead, decaying humpback whale — there is little that’s especially remarkable here, and even less unique to Baja.
Nor is there, really, in the nursing habits of teems of black-tuffed terns, protected from predators by helpful gulls. Sound man Michael Wescoat (who also doubled as scribe of the consistently bland voiceover) captures some ear-popping natural cacophony here, as he does the ghostly bellows of enormous, often aggressive elephant seals sunning on the sand after a long migration from the north. Any of these sights and sounds, taken on their own, would be right at home on the Discovery Channel.
Only at midpoint does the docu consider Baja itself, starting with fine animation showing the tectonic plate shifts that formed the peninsula (while avoiding, so as perhaps to not scare the kids, the matter that this land break may be a precursor for the rest of California to the north). With the narrow Sea of Cortez formed as the world’s biggest cove and its water much cooler than the Pacific, rich plankton life formed that provided the basis for the environment’s fantastically rich undersea life.
Some fine helicopter lensing, though not of the theatrically swooping kind made famous by Greg MacGillivray, effectively views Baja’s forested and, yes, snowy, highlands, as well as some enticing palm-lined river canyons. Not enough Imax nature films have trekked to the desert, and the too-brief foray here (highlighted by an amazing close-up of a rattlesnake on the hunt) hints at the possibilities.
Alan Reeves’ score is of the generically grand sort when it isn’t clearly borrowing from Michael Nyman, and the narration, which jumps around from one Mexican scientist to another, comes in sometimes heavily accented English.