An intermittently spectacular science lesson, National Geographic's "Forces of Nature" delivers a trio of natural disasters -- volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes -- interwoven with well-meaning educational soundbytes from a trio of scientists. Despite strong talent behind the camera and fine narration by Kevin Bacon, docu only sporadically justifies its 70mm Imax format and suffers at times from a jarring strain of elementary school didacticism.

An intermittently spectacular science lesson, National Geographic’s “Forces of Nature” delivers a trio of natural disasters — volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes — interwoven with well-meaning educational soundbytes from a trio of scientists. Despite strong talent behind the camera and fine narration by Kevin Bacon, docu only sporadically justifies its 70mm Imax format and suffers at times from a jarring strain of elementary school didacticism. That shouldn’t deter regular Imax viewers or geology students, whose interest, stimulated by pic’s fascinating subject matter and brisk 40-minute runtime, should make this a solid performer in the giant-screen edu-tainment market.

Opening with an effective visualization of the earth’s molten interior, helmer George Casey not-too-subtly drives home his point about the fragility of the earth. Live footage of actual disasters notwithstanding, these computer-generated simulations may be among docu’s most ingenious cinematic effects. Casey is clearly out to make a movie, not a PowerPoint lecture, and he shrewdly conveys reams of complex data. Bacon’s accompanying narration strikes just the right note of apocalyptic gloom as he describes the extremely hot temperatures beneath the earth’s crust.

The first and best of the three disaster segments unfolds on the island nation of Montserrat, where Casey’s crew records the volcanic eruption of Soufriere Hills in 1995. Footage of the mountain exploding, sending a huge dome of lava and ash skyward, is extraordinary, conveying nothing less than the primal thrill of seeing a cataclysm captured on film. Camera then shifts focus, less compellingly, to volcanologist Dr. Marie Edmonds, who explains how research at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory has saved lives.

Following two segments repeat the formula to diminishing returns. Casey next revisits the devastating 1999 earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, which killed 17,000 people. Sweeping overhead shots of the ruined city, however, can’t compare with the brief but riveting TV footage taken while the quake itself was in progress. Meanwhile, strolling through the nearby Hagia Sophia, geophysicist Dr. Ross Stein ominously predicts that Istanbul will be the site of the region’s next major shakeup and — in lecture mode — repeatedly emphasizes the need for more reliable architecture.

Least gripping is the tornado chapter, which proves that gray funnel clouds don’t make terribly dynamic Imax subjects, especially when lensed from a (clearly necessary) distance. Narrative strand follows a team of storm chasers, led by Dr. Joshua Wurman, who are trying to capture an inside view of a tornado, a premise whose novelty was exhausted by 1996’s “Twister.”

Attempting to put a human face on catastrophes, “Forces of Nature” shows Midwestern families returning, shell-shocked, to the wreckage of their homes after a tornado. But for the most part, sensibility tends toward the bombastic rather than the empathetic. Some of the disaster sequences would have been more dramatically effective without the encumbrance of Sam Cardon’s score.

Forces Of Nature

Production

A Destination Cinema release of a National Geographic and Graphic Films production, in association with Amica Insurance and the National Science Foundation. Produced by Paul Novros, George Casey. Executive producers, Lisa Truitt, Tim Kelly. Directed by George Casey. Written by Mose Richards.

Crew

Camera (color, Imax), Sean Casey; editor, Stephen L. Johnson; music, Sam Cardon; line producer, Greg Eliason; associate producers, Ammiel Najar, Erica Immucci. Reviewed at California Science Center Imax Theater, Los Angeles, June 23, 2004. Running time: 40 MIN.

With

Narrator: Kevin Bacon.

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