Going where no Imax camera has gone before, “The Human Body” is a wonder of megascreen optics combined with the most mundane of domestic environments. Whether helmer Peter Georgi intended it or not, the film — written by Richard Dale — ironically shows a world in which the body’s inner workings form a complex system of organic mechanics, cavernous depths and dynamic natural forces, while the outer human world couldn’t be more ordinary. Pic is a landmark in two respects: It’s the first Imax project to employ high-definition cameras, which results in the crispest image of any large-format film to date; it also adapts such medical photographic methods as endoscopy, Schlieren photography and magnetic resonance imagery, using lenses by German optical firm Karl Storz and formats from 16mm to 65mm, to plumb organs, cavities and even the heart chamber. The fine if uneven results, a kind of throwback to the original serious science docus of Imax past, should prove a strong, steady performer on Imax’s science circuit.
The first images are literally skin-deep as Georgi’s camera courses over the surface of a nude human body in a series of impossible-seeming closeups and Dale’s narration (“65% water, 22% carbon, traces of gold, arsenic and rust…an average of 27,000 new days…”) adds a layer of wondrousness as spoken with great command by Dr. Robert Winston. Everyday life soon takes over as the camera observes a new day for Heather and Buster Pike, living in the British home of Heather’s sister and taking care of Heather’s nephew Luke and niece Zannah. A clever use of split-screen divides up the rooms in the home, as if the abode is a system like the body itself.
Each family member becomes a model to observe different bodily functions, from Luke bicycling to school (exquisite X-ray lensing and Schlieren photography shows his skeleton in motion and his body heat rising) to a pregnant Heather developing through her nine-month cycle. Buster cutting himself while shaving offers a chance to show the death of billions of red blood cells, while his carpool driver’s fast reactions are tied to images showing brain neurons actually firing a warning to the body to respond to danger. When Zannah gets home from school and listens to tunes with her earplugs, we travel into her ear to see a precise digital model of the eardrum processing the sounds as music.
Heather’s pregnancy is the centerpiece, however, and though the expectant mom has little to offer other than some vaguely warm and fuzzy sentiments, the imagery of the developing fetus reveals the remarkably speedy growth that occurs soon after conception. Even before the rather quiet birth of Heather’s baby, pic shows what happens when she digests a lunch of pasta salad, which sloshes around in her stomach. A section detailing an infant’s still-unexplained ability to hold its breath under water feels misplaced and tangential.
What finally makes “The Human Body” a genuine piece of cinema is the dramatic use of sound, such as the explosive pumping of the heart, the sizzle of dying brain cells or the whoosh of lungs inhaling and exhaling. It’s the soundtrack, as much as the opticals, which makes this brief Imax trip a thoroughly sensory experience.