You Say You Want an Evolution

The only films my boyfriend's dad will see in the theater are IMAX movies. I kid you not. Dragging family members with him, he sees everything that comes out, from Dolphins to Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man, sometimes going several times to the same one. He's not really sure why he's so hooked; it probably has something to do with IMAX theaters being really the only place to see nonfiction fare on the big screen—or, in this case, a colossal screen—and get blasted by a high-fidelity sound system. Of course, there'd better be something unique about the experience if you're paying $9 to see a 40-minute film.

Well-worth the price is Galapagos, the latest offering at Irvine Spectrum's Edwards IMAX. Filmed in IMAX 3-D during two expeditions, the film follows Smithsonian Institution marine biologist Carole Baldwin on her first trip to the archipelago, where she hikes, scuba-dives and takes a submersible 3,000 feet below the ocean surface to encounter an array of amazing land- and sea-dwelling creatures. Having evolved without huge, skilled predators, the islands' animals display little fear—making them ideal for the 3-D format, which requires objects to be within 20 feet. (Sadly, the same docile traits that allowed the filmmakers to get fantastic in-your-face closeups of a yellow land iguana munching on cactus and a male frigate haughtily puffing up his bright red gular sack are also what have made the animals particularly susceptible to human and feral animal predation.)

Accompanied by Mark Isham's New Agey, tropical score, Galapagostakes viewers on a mostly idyllic adventure, with unusually curious spotted moray eels and schools of hammerhead sharks and barracuda providing an occasional sense of danger. Aimed at families, the visual-centric documentary doesn't get too scholarly, but it does make a point of discussing biodiversity and evolution by natural selection through the narration of the enthusiastic Baldwin and multitalented Kenneth Branagh, who seems to be getting a fair amount of work employing his gentle British accent in documentaries (most notably in the amazing BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs, another fine example of technology-enhanced or, in this case, technology-produced nature films).

Located 600 miles west of Ecuador, the cluster of 19 islands and dozens of islets known as the Galpagos are relatively new, geologically speaking, as they formed 3 million to 5 million years ago from volcanic activity at the bottom of the ocean. Exploring only a fraction of these islands, producer/director tag team Al Giddings and David Clark chose to emphasize the starker, less-vegetated environments to convey how life is able to adapt, endure and even flourish despite harsh conditions. As a result, the colors aren't as vibrant and varied as you'd hope. While they're amazing creatures, soot-colored marine iguanas sunning on beachside, black volcanic rock don't make for dazzling cinematography. Given the 3-D format, though, the huge, blunt-snouted reptiles seem to lumber right out at you as they make their daily plunge into the ocean.

Largely isolated from outside contact until the past couple of hundred years, the Galpagos Islands have been called “a natural laboratory of evolution.” The most famous researcher to scribble notes and collect specimens there is, of course, Charles Darwin, who visited the islands in 1835 as the naturalist of the HMS Beagle's five-year scientific expedition to survey the east and west coasts of South America. All having evolved from one mainland species of each creature, the islands' 13 species of finches with specialized beaks and 14 species of giant tortoises with specialized shell shapes are his most significant findings, though it wasn't until after he returned from his travels that he realized the extent of his discovery. His time spent on the islands was instrumental in constructing his theory of evolution by natural selection 24 years later, when he finally published his monumental book, The Origin of Species.

Guided by Darwin's theory, Baldwin's research focuses on the evolutionary relationship of fish. In traveling to Galpagos, her intent was to document some of the underwater diversity around the islands. Provided that one has access to a high-tech submersible, documenting new marine animals isn't that difficult: by volume, the Earth's oceans compose more than 90 percent of the planet's biosphere, yet less than 10 percent of the ocean and 1 percent of the deep ocean floor has been explored. Discovering more than a dozen new species, Baldwin's first trip in one of these acrylic-bubbled contraptions—which would need just one tiny crack to crush its inhabitants—makes for the culmination of the film and takes full advantage of the 3-D format. With its red lasers shooting out like a spaceship, the submersible sucks up unsuspecting deep-sea dwellers as marine snow swirls around. Of course, no mention is made that these poor guys, whom Baldwin watches with fascination in a tank on the ocean's surface afterward, may be swimming their last swim. While some survive the trek to the overworld, they aren't designed to live in shallow water. Such is science.

And such is IMAX 3-D. The only drawback to this movie is wearing the clunky welders' goggles, which made the short duration of the film seem a blessing. My boyfriend walked away with a slight headache, having had a hard time adjusting to the double projection. While I didn't experience the same discomfort, by the end of the movie, the tip of my nose really ached and felt slightly numb. Still, for someone like me, who gazes longingly at the ritzy Lindblad Expeditions Galpagos travel brochures ($2,980—airfare excluded), this is the closest I'll probably ever be to this highly protected park.

Galapagos screens at Edwards IMAX Theatre, Irvine Spectrum, 5 fwy. and Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (714) 832-IMAX. see neighborhood movie guide for show times.

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