Taller than "Jurassic Park" and acrawl with more and creepier creatures, "Galapagos," the stunning new Imax 3-D film that opens today at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, is almost as good as a trip to evolution's greatest showcase. The Kansas Board of Education should buy a ticket.
If they do, they may well decide that creation on the Darwin model is no less Divine than that described in the Bible, just infinitely more elegant and awesome. And that the famous lava-looming islands off Ecuador are its greatest cathedral.
For those of us who can remember, however vaguely, such ancient and rickety 3-D film efforts as "Bwana Devil" and "House of Wax" in the 1950s, the 3-D aspects of "Galapagos" are a bit unnerving. The glasses you wear are Elton John-size, and boobies and frigate birds keep flying out of the screen to roost in the seats behind you. But that aside, it's a glorious 40 minutes, as instructive as it is sublime.
The story, such as it is, tracks Carole Baldwin, a real-life marine biologist at the museum, on two collecting trips to the Galapagos during the summer of 1998 and the winter of 1999. Baldwin, who plays herself, is an immensely appealing protagonist, a clearly professional scientist with just enough youthful vulnerability to enlist the tentative on her adventure.
Whether she's rappelling into a dark cave for bird bones or scuba-diving with hammerhead sharks, she's unafraid to confess either her sometime squeamishness or her unalloyed joy in hands-on scientific discovery. Her performance ought to boost the nation's enrollment of biology majors by at least 30 percent.
If Baldwin is the major character in the film, however, the Galapagos Islands themselves are the star--an eerie landscape of frozen lava peopled with demonic saltwater iguanas, lumbering tortoises and a seascape alive with improbable shapes.
The underwater scenes are as close as a non-diver will ever come to experiencing the magic and menace of the subsea world: the majesty of thousand-fish schools undulating in the oceanic half-light; the comic curiosity of sea lion pups streaking here and there at play; the haunting restlessness of the hammerheads patrolling like grotesque sentinels of a forbidden kingdom.
It's almost an anticlimax when Baldwin jumps in the bubble-canopied Johnson Sea-Link II submarine and descends 3,000 feet to seek out spookier specimens from the deeper depths. At that point the sub itself becomes a character in the film--a helicopter-like R2-D2 with red laser eyes vacuuming startled Stone Age creatures from the sea floor. Slurp, up they go, through the tube and into the sample tanks. Baldwin tells us they make it unharmed, but one hairy-looking goosefish is clearly saying "Ouch!"
If there's one drawback to the astonishing illusion of depth in the Imax 3-D format, it's the occasional lack of scale. Early in the film, particularly in close-up shots, the viewer may have a hard time deciding whether that iguana on the six-story screen is three or 300 feet long. Unless Baldwin or someone else comes striding by for comparison, it's often impossible to tell, partly due to the general absence of trees and other readily size-identifiable organisms on the tortured lava shore. Underwater, for some reason, that appears less of a problem. If those hammerheads are really any bigger than they look, we don't want to know.
Because they've rarely been hunted, animals native to the Galapagos are famously unafraid of man, and while that's usually just engaging ashore, it can be more than unnerving underwater. An experienced diver before her trip, Baldwin notes that the behavior of sea creatures around the islands is remarkably unpredictable, an observation disturbingly apparent when she's swarmed by a half-dozen spotted moray eels, each at least five feet long.
Now, the moray is not the prettiest of God's creatures, equipped as he is with death's-head eyes, pointed, slime-dripping teeth and menacing, wolflike jaws that he opens and closes constantly to keep water pumping through his gills. It's not his fault he's beastly, but you wouldn't want to take him home to Mother.
Normally he's a reclusive sort, lurking alone in reef crevices except to dart out and chomp the occasional passing fish. Morays don't usually travel in packs, which, most divers would say, is probably just as well. Watching Baldwin gang-tackled by a bunch of toothy morays snaking around her legs and against her face mask, therefore, is enough to pump the adrenaline in most of us. Not to mention her.
It wasn't, she says, all for the cameras.
"Originally, I was supposed to just swim by and shine a light on the eels in the cave and move on," she said last week at a media preview. Then the film crew "hid some smelly stuff in the sand so the eels would come out further into camera range. But nobody can explain why they ignored that stuff and came at me. I accused the crew of sabotaging my gear with fish scent or something, but they insist they didn't. So it remains a mystery. But it made for a hairy few moments."
"Galapagos" was Baldwin's first film, but most of her scenes were shot on the first take. It's not that she's a great actress, she says: "The Imax process is just so expensive"--$2,000 for every three minutes of film exposed--"that if I didn't get a scene right the first time it ended up on the cutting room floor."
The film was shot in a total of 14 days, utilizing the world's only two Imax 3-D cameras. Subsurface scenes were handled by noted cinematographer Al Giddings, whose award-winning underwater photography has highlighted feature films from "The Deep" and several James Bond movies to "The Abyss" and "Titanic."
As evocative as Giddings's camera work, however, is the music of Mark Isham, an Academy Award nominee for his score for "A River Runs Through It." Isham's Andean echoes are just the otherworldly thing for the Galapagos lavascape. And while he never gets too thumpingly "Jaws"-like when the hammerheads swim into view, his shark theme would be sensational to have on hand for high-amp broadcast Sunday when tiny maskers pound the door demanding treats. It sounds eerily like the musical signature of a whole new world.
Galapagos, daily at 10:15 a.m., noon, 2:50 p.m. and 4:40 p.m. in the National Museum of Natural History's Samuel C. Johnson Theater. $6.50 for adults, $5.50 youth and seniors. For information call 202-633-7400.
CAPTION: "Galapagos" features iguanas and more--all in 3-D at the natural history museum.
CAPTION: Marine biologist Carole Baldwin in "Galapagos," with an iguana.