THREE-DIMENSIONAL IMAX technology has been around for almost 10 years, but it's rarely been put to better use than in the eye-popping new film "Galapagos," which opened this week at the National Museum of Natural History's Samuel C. Johnson Theater.

Filmed over the course of 14 weeks during two expeditions to the Galapagos Islands in 1998 and 1999, the film takes the nature documentary into the 21st century with breathtaking 3-D photography of the finches, cormorants, marine iguanas, tortoises, prickly pear cacti and fish that live on and around the beautifully alien terrain of these volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador.

Following the specimen-collecting field research of museum ichthyologist (and reluctant movie star) Carole Baldwin, "Galapagos" starts on the ground and in dark caves, moves to the tide pools and the ocean depths, thanks to the Seward Johnson, a submersible vehicle that Baldwin describes as a sort of "floating minivan." Due to the undersea darkness, scenes of the ocean floor at 3,000 feet were re-created at night in shallow water.

The audience wears polarized glasses whose filtered lenses allow each eye to see only one of two separately filmed moving images, but you quickly adjust to the headgear's slight awkwardness, losing yourself in some of the most uncannily lifelike 3-D vistas encountered in a movie theater.

On more than one occasion, I was tempted to reach out and touch the rough hide of a lizard flicking its pink tongue in my face, only to be rudely snapped back to reality by the sudden movement of a colleague's head in the row in front of me.

As museum director Robert Fri bragged justifiably after a recent screening, "As you may have noticed, this is not Vincent Price in the `House of Wax' anymore."

GALAPAGOS - Screens daily at 10:15, 1, 2 and 4:40 at the Johnson Theater of the National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Federal Triangle). 202/633-7400. Web site: www.nmnh.si.edu/museum/ DiscoveryCenter. Tickets may be purchased at the box office in advance. Tickets are $6.50; $5.50 for children 2 through 17 and for seniors 55 and older. Admission to the museum is free. Open 10 to 5:30 daily.