Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Scientific documentaries just don't come any clearer than this one: Without character, plot, script or an overriding thesis, Shapes of the Invisible consists of twenty-two voyages from the normal human scale of perception, down to the near-infinitesimal regions of atomic structure. Each trip starts at a place of familiarity -- a corn husk, a clay pot -- and descends into microscopia to reveal forms unseen.
"To the naked eye, this is just an ..." begins the calm, neutral narrator for each of 22 objects or living things presented for examination. The first item up is a small steel gear with one tooth broken; for most of the selections the camera view chooses to zoom in on an imperfection of some kind so that closer views will reveal some interesting interior structure, as opposed to a worn surface. As each 'voyage' concludes on a single pulsating atom, the voice ends with a variation on the words, "This is the limit of our view. We can go no further ... for now."
Viewers versed in film short subjects will see the similarities between Shapes of the Invisible and Charles and Ray Eames' visionary Rough Sketch of a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe from 1968. Using photographs and artist's renderings, Eames devised a pair of 'cosmic zooms' from a picnic scene at the edge of an airport, to the known end of the Universe, and then back to the airport. Then the view reversed direction to travel into an atom on the hand of one of the sleeping picnickers. In 1977, Eames remade the picture as Powers of Ten, finessing the transitions between artworks as the view grew wider or narrower. But he also replaced Judith Boronowski's soothing voiceover (which became giddily humorous in its own right) with a more pedantic narrator. The film made ideal college counter-programming with Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man, a superior science fiction film that contemplates man's relationship to the universe on a spiritual scale.
Shapes of the Invisible concentrates on the second part of Eames' show, with the added fillip that instead of artists' renderings, we see actual views taken by electron microscopes. Starting with still images of the object in question, the view begins a steady forward motion that glides almost imperceptibly from one image to the next. In the lower right-hand corner of the frame, a magnification counter advances, slowly at first, but soon leaping into astronomical numbers. After a few magnifications the taking 'camera' becomes an electron microscope, leading us into ever-changing 'landscapes' at levels of observation unknown to any other instrument.
There are no embellishments to this motion beyond the narration that explains what we are seeing. Crystalline rigidity seems to be the rule in metals like steel and aluminum. Even at relatively high magnifications we can still see the 'scratches' on the outside of an aluminum tube that has been given a high polish. The atoms of dense metals are arranged in tight formations, while other substances like clay are completely formless at the atomic level.
The examples are chosen for documentary contrast and comparison. Some of the details at high magnification would be of interest mainly to metallurgical engineers, so Shapes of the Invisible becomes more interesting to the layman as it moves into vegetable (corn, a leaf) and animal subject matter. We journey into the leg-hook of a common louse, and literally down the throat of a housefly. The narrator rightfully calls them monsters at this scale of observation - we contemplate the thousands of disgusting hairs on the housefly and are told that they are sense organs detecting motion in the fly's immediate environment.
But we see great beauty as well. The wings of a butterfly reveal myriad rows of colored flaps that look like rug samples. The patterns inside a human hair are fascinating -- and give us a better understanding of the terminology in shampoo commercials.
Facets Video's DVD of Shapes of the Invisible looks good and appears to be wholly digitally sourced. As would be expected, the visual quality is exacting. Electronic sound presences are heard during each chapter, adding a needed aural component. The individual micro-probes are each given a program chapter, but although they play in a logical procession there are no titles or credits to organize them into a linear program. The show would need more formatting to be shown on television. The disc reviewed was a check disc; final packaging may provide more explanation of the program's intended use.
A menu choice for Credits turns out to be a list of French electron microscopes where the individual 'scenes' were processed.
Another menu choice gives us a short featurette on the making of the film, picturing its three creators Pierre Oscar Levy, Gabriel Turkish and Jean-Michel Sanchez as they film a live-action scene to begin a descent into the skin of a human hand. Although 99% of what we see are genuine views of reality through digital cameras and electron microscopes, computer graphics are employed to create the illusion of a camera creeping forward, shrinking as it goes. And we know that the final images of atoms must be artwork creations, as at that scale matter and light become electronic abstractions incapable of being imaged.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shapes of the Invisible rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: 'making of' featurette
Packaging: unknown - reviewed from check disc.
Reviewed: February 12, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson