As the first giantscreen film ever to be shot in Saudi Arabia, veteran Imax documentarian Greg MacGillivray’s “Arabia 3D” is a unique, immersive experience. But despite some thrilling footage of the country’s winding deserts, ultra-modern skyscrapers and mass gatherings, the docu is held together by the loosest of threads, and its value as an educational tool is diminished by a frustrating inability to stay on topic.
The 45-minute film is nominally concerned with exploring Arabia’s two golden ages: the first occurring during Roman times, when Nabataean traders cornered the market in frankincense; the second being the cultural and scientific renaissance that flourished in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests. It’s strongly implied that the nation’s current oil wealth may be setting the stage for a third, but aside from a curiously long look at a newly established university, evidence for this is uneven.
Along with credited (though largely absent) narrator Helen Mirren, “Arabia 3D” is centered around voiceovers from Chicago-based Saudi film student Hamzah Jamjoom, who travels the country evidently making a docu of his own. Jamjoom is a fun, well-spoken, good-looking youngster, but his role in the film is ill defined, as he’s usually seen setting up cameras to shoot footage the audience never gets to see, and discussing things with various Saudi figures the audience never gets to hear.
The film steers free of politics, save for a highly diplomatic mention of improvements the nation has made in regard to women’s rights, which would be fine if it didn’t also set up the country’s King Abdullah as a semi-heroic figure. The docu’s obvious intention is a noble one — to contrast the Western media’s often negatively skewed perspective of Saudis by spotlighting the vast majority who are peaceful, reasonable and industrious. Yet without acknowledging the extremism, repression and economic inequality that exists alongside this idyllic portrayal, the picture feels incomplete, if not whitewashed.
Despite its faults, the pic’s climactic footage of millions of Muslim pilgrims partaking in the Hajj at Mecca is simply astounding, and alone worth the price of admission. Beautiful aerial shots of pilgrims circling the Kaaba or bowing to pray in perfect synchronicity spark goosebumps; if anything, the giant Imax screen seems far too small a frame to capture a gathering of such an enormous scale.
Score is an intriguing mix of Arabian instrumentation with Western themes, and CGI interludes — which present maps, illustrations and animated renderings in pop-up book style — are very well crafted.