Mystery of the Nile” documents the first expedition to successfully run the Blue Nile River from source to sea, some 3,250 miles. The historic journey was reportedly fraught with danger — previous efforts ended in deaths and disappearances — but little real-life drama is ever caught onscreen. Instead, unwieldy Imax cameras necessitate heavily voiced-over reconstructions or rough approximations (shots of crocodiles combined with interview footage of a guy who was nearly chomped). Despite the grandeur of colossal Egyptian statuary and Coptic churches carved from single blocks of stone, “Mystery” plays like an armchair travelogue better suited to science centers than commercial megascreens.
The expedition, led by geologist Pasquale Scaturro and kayaker-cinematographer Gordon Brown, included an Egyptian hydrologist, a Spanish archeologist, a Chilean photographer and a German journalist, all of whom provide some basic facts about the Nile — the ominously rising salt content of the river caused by deforestation, the pluses and minuses of the Aswan dam, the historical and still vital importance of this longest river in the world. But, by and large, these personable young professionals just take turns nattering on about interesting natives and scary rapids, their true know-how apparently judged over the heads of the audience.
Filmmakers impose an episodic, journal-like rhythm on their coverage of the trip. At intervals, Africa’s usual floral and fauna are allowed to enliven the landscape — splendid baobab trees, huge ferocious crocodiles and mammoth sleepy hippos pass in dignified repose; run-ins with natural and human predators are more laboriously and melodramatically worked into the narrative.
At one stretch in the navigation of white-water rapids, the camera succeeds in capturing a near-fatal spill to highly spontaneous effect. A later attack by bandits, however, reveals its self-conscious re-staging in overcompensatory narration. Far more memorably, amid the Sudanese sand dunes, the team encounters the black pyramids and mystical ruins of Meroe, evocative remnants of the powerful Kingdom of Kush that flourished for seven centuries.
Despite featuring a 114-day voyage down a treacherous waterway, indoor scenes consistently trump the outdoor ones: A low-angle shot from the floor of a tomb of such manmade artifacts as huge, soaring columns is immediately readable, while natural vistas of waterfalls or deep-etched canyons appear flattened when indifferently photographed from the air or from convenient nearby riverbanks. Only the eerie interlude in Meroe delivers on the enigmatic promise of the pic’s title.