Although the network tries to dress it up, Science Channel is merely exploring its inner geek with “Raiders, Raptors and Rebels: Behind the Magic of ILM,” a synergistic celebration of George Lucas’ special-effects factory Industrial Light & Magic. Covering a lot of ground similar to a 2010 doc by Leslie Iwerks, the special proves slightly disjointed, simultaneously focusing on filmmaking breakthroughs introduced by ILM, and how some of those early “Star Wars” creations, in particular, have actually gained a toehold with parallel real-world innovations. Breezy and mildly fun, it’s mostly an excuse to make watching old movie clips seem educational.
Narrated by Mark Hamill, the special comes from Lincoln Square Prods., an arm of ABC News — like Lucasfilm, part of the Disney empire. Yet while the Science niche invites a more technical approach to the conversation, the main thrust boils down to the evolution of visual effects, as one of ILM staffer puts it, which “help filmmakers tell stories that can’t be told otherwise.”
By necessity, that has required new technologies and applications that have come to permeate the film biz, from computerizing camera movements to the use of computer-generated imagery to realize creations like “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and the dinosaurs in the first “Jurassic Park.” Notably, some of the more significant advances came in the service of relatively mediocre movies, like a transformation sequence in “Willow” or the motion-capture technology used to bring Bill Nighy’s tentacle-covered Davy Jones to life in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”
Executive producer Megan Harding also expands on the theatrical blessings ushered in by ILM to contemplate how various elements within “Star Wars” — from that hologram of Princess Leia (“Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi”) to Luke Skywalker’s bionic arm — have actually become something close to those visions in real life. Oddly, the special makes no mention of the movie’s influence over the development of videogames, which, culturally speaking, was certainly significant as well.
Science describes the documentary as a “rare look into a world where science and movie magic collide,” but even in the observed contributed by the scientists who join the talking heads, it’s pretty obvious in which direction the scales tilt, and that “Raiders, Raptors and Rebels” really isn’t much more than a slickly produced electronic press kit. So when Lucas states near the end that humans will eventually have to leave the Earth because we’re destroying the planet, that harrowing and provocative appraisal of the threat of climate change is left dangling — a bit too sobering, perhaps, for an hour clearly more interested in latching onto summer blockbusters than boring old science.