Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Movie Index


Directed by Stephen Judson (2001, MacGillivray Freeman Films)
Narrated by Liam Neeson, starring Nancy Aulenbach and Dr. Hazel Barton, with music by The Moody Blues

Two women explore caves in the dry heat, ice cold, and underwater in search of extreme microbial lifeforms.



4 stars

October 27th, 2001 on the IMAX screen

    Wonderfully crafted, the triumph of this film is in the presentation. The caves were very wondrous, and the people interesting, which helped a lot, too.

Without the near-constant soundtrack of music, this film could have been very dry. I'm not sure it would have lived up to the best IMAX films without it. But the music, performed by the Moody Blues, was terrific. When searching for extremophiles, the lifeforms that live in the extreme conditions on Earth, we heard the faint traces of the Moody Blues song "I know you're out there somewhere", and there were others to recognize, as well.

The cinematography was also excellent. When coming upon the cavers in the Grand Canyon, we first do the typical IMAX thing of flying fast and close to the rock formations, barely missing them. This has been done in countless IMAX films, mostly because it takes full effect of the technology and the giant screen. Then, we pan and zoom around in circles, watching the climbers as they scout for caves. The scene is dizzying, but it is also beautifully crafted, probably the best scene in the whole film. But I'm not sure it would do well on a smaller screen. 

We meet up with the two cavers, searching for those extreme lifeforms. They take rock samples from caves that have likely never been touched by man. That seems an extreme statement, but it could be true. Who knows how many nooks and crannies there are, that can only be stumbled upon, way off the beaten paths? The lengths they go to prove only one thing: that they are crazy! Crossing two pillars of the Grand Canyon on a length of cable, with a drop of who knows how much below? Certainly something I could never do. But the heat-singed caves are probably the least dangerous of all the caves they visit...

They travel to Greenland, where they explore an ice cave. This is even scarier! Wow! I really don't know how these people do it. It was so dangerous, in fact, that the experienced cave climber didn't let the featured team down to the bottom of the cave. He climbed down, didn't like what he saw, and took the ice and water samples for them, racing up again immediately afterwards. He didn't spend more time than he had to down there. That was incredible. The pure water, formed from melted glaciers, some of which is millions of years old, could hold special secrets that could cure diseases. But the view was also spectacular. Seeing people hanging from cables hammered into such fantastic ice formations was breathtaking. It was really a memorable event.

I do have to take issue with Nancy and Hazel's opinions of cold, however. Minus 12 degrees C with a wind chill of -26 degrees Celcius is a mild winter day here in southern Ontario and Quebec! Come mid-February, we can go down below -30 to -40 without the wind, and much, much colder as the wind picks up. And Ottawa can be very windy. (That's not to say it's not a nice place to live. We got up to +38 C this summer, which became +45 with the humidity factored in! Conversion: +40 C is about 104 degrees F, and -40 is the same in both C and F.) But I guess being from Georgia, that's quite cold.

Back in Georgia, Nancy took her young students to a bat cave. That was pretty cool, especially when she held the bat in her hands and showed it to them. Seeing those thousands of bats soar in the sky was awesome. And the kids, as Joanne put it, were standing there like "little sponges", soaking up all the information Nancy was spewing out.

In another round of searching for extremophiles, Nancy and Hazel moved to Southern Mexico, where they scouted out the rain forests for underwater caves. There, fresh water from the lakes merge way underground with salt water from the sea. The mixing layer there forms another harsh environment.

As far as humans are concerned, the harsh environment is the cave itself. What happens next just proves that these people are crazy! I have to admire their courage, though. I could certainly never do what they do. Neither could Nancy, who acknowledged that cave-diving was so dangerous that she promised her family that she would never do it. Hazel and the guide, not to mention the camera operator, reach a dead end in a narrow passageway. Squeezing through the small opening in the rocks, one air cylinder at a time, they follow the water to the rock wall. While searching for another way out, they stir up so much sediment that visibility goes down to zero. Absolute zero, except maybe for a few shadows. As a rule, they always tie a line at one end of the cave, and unwind it as they go along. This way, they can follow the line back -because one turn and they could be lost. It also helps them get out of the kind of situation they found themselves in.

On the second try in another cave, they follow a guide wire left by a previous diver, and go beyond where that diver went. They reach the mixing layer of fresh and salt water, the halocline. Hazel takes some samples, and they continue swimming on, to the exit of the cave. Pretty cool, and very nasty stuff.

The divers and all the cavers seemed like they had a lot of fun. It was amazing to watch them in their elements. Such extreme behavior is not for most people, but for others, it is what they must do.

While watching them kayak through the Grand Canyon, in the blue limestone rapids, and the cool, placid pools, I thought, hey, I could do that. But then the hard rock music started, and they swept over rough water, into rapids and waterfalls, being daredevils and absolutely having a blast -but they were way out of my league. At other points, they flaunted their climbing skills, climbing down under a waterfall, through the spraying mists, and then dashed around each other. I was worried their lines would tangle. But they had such a fun time, not a care in the world! It was awe-inspiring.

It was amazing to watch the cave scenery, from the red rocks of the Grand Canyon to the blue glacier ice of Greenland, and then to the dark recesses of the underwater caves in Mexico. Add to that the daredevil antics of the cavers, and especially the raging music that fit the scenes and scenery so well, and we have a very entertaining film. Finally, the choreography of the camera operators, what they must have done to get those spectacular shots, was amazing.

This film, by the same producers as Dolphins, proves that IMAX film-making has come a very long way, and that it has finally reached the stage where, in good hands, it doesn't have to be dull to get the message of a documentary through. Spice and pizzazz like this can go a long way towards audience rapture. Keep them coming!


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