Remarkable as much for its technical accomplishments as for its scientific revelations, Imax offering is the first of its kind to illuminate -- literally -- life at the bottom of the ocean. Even in a reduced format, docu would be a highlight at aquariums and marine centers, and it ought to be required viewing for any ocean science or geology class.

Remarkable as much for its technical accomplishments as for its scientific revelations, “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea” is the latest Imax offering to explore a little-seen destination and the first of its kind to illuminate — literally — life at the bottom of the ocean. Even in a reduced format, which would greatly diminish the quality of its images, docu would be a highlight at aquariums and marine centers, and it ought to be required viewing for any ocean science or geology class.

Perfectly suited to the educational area, bigscreen offering will likely have its greatest impact there, as it lacks the built-in buzz of, say, anything involving the Titanic (though “Titanica” director Stephen Low helms and James Cameron is credited as exec producer).

Pic explains that until as recently as 26 years ago, marine scientists believed the light-deprived ocean floor to be devoid of plant or animal life. That notion changed during a 1977 Galapagos expedition in which researchers discovered thriving pockets of life as deep as 12,000 feet. Most surprisingly, they located bubbling hydrothermal vents — twisted and sputtering oceanic volcanoes — spewing toxic gases and heating the water by as much as 700 degrees, enough to melt lead.

But rather than extinguishing all life forms, the gaseous emissions help sustain organisms ranging from eight-foot long tubeworms to microscopic creatures that manage to transform the minerals into energy and food.

The discovery’s implications are numerous, challenging existing theories of evolution and ideas about life on other planets. Unlike photosynthesis (in which green plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen), “chemosynthesis” (in which organisms convert hydrogen sulfide and other gases into energy), could alter ideas affecting evolutionary theory.

It is possible, for instance, that life might not have originated in the upper, light-receiving parts of the ocean as has been contended, but possibly in its deepest regions. Similarly, scientists believe the data offers evidence that life could exist in other parts of the universe once thought barren. Of particular interest in this realm is Jupiter’s moon Europa, having a frozen surface that may blanket a saltwater sea.

Without the now-famous deep-sea vehicle Alvin, known for its trips to the wreckage of the Titanic, it would have been impossible to gather this information. Outfitted with lighting technology capable of emitting up to 4,400 watts (designed by helmer Low), Alvin was able to illuminate these busy ecosystems.

But it was no easy venture: Alvin can hold just two men and the massive Imax camera (stocked with film pushed to the equivalent of 40,000 A.S.A.). The groundbreaking images recorded here rep 22 dives over the course of three years.

Because of obvious limitations inherent in photographing at such depths — no ambient light, toxic gases, water pressure of 3,500 pounds per square inch — “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea” necessarily poses more questions than it answers. But it comes tantalizingly close to solving deep-sea riddles, such as the identity of the mysterious creature Paleodictyon. Fossils bearing the creature’s intricate, honeycombed stamp and thought to be 55 million years old match fresh patterns found on the ocean floor, but the creature itself remains elusive.

For the most part, “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea” avoids obfuscating technical jargon and offers concrete explanations, provided by narrator Ed Harris, for the phenomena it discusses. Occasional CGI additions enhance context and clarity, and Michel Cusson’s music adds a sweeping grandeur to the proceedings.

Volcanoes of the Deep Sea

Production

An Imax presentation of a Stephen Low Co. and Rutgers U. production. Produced by Pietro Serapiglia, Alexander Low. Executive producer, James Cameron. Directed by Stephen Low.

Crew

Camera (color, Imax), William Reeve; editor, James Lahti; music, Michel Cusson; science director, Richard A. Lutz; supervising producer, Emory Kristof; associate producer, Lahti; associate science director, Peter Rona. Reviewed at California Science Center Imax Theater, L.A., Sept. 9, 2003. Running time: 41 MIN.

With

Narrator: Ed Harris

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