Textbook example of a tough assignment: Write an insightful and entertaining review of a 45-minute nature documentary that was originally produced for IMAX screens and takes place mostly underwater while mega-genius scientists rattle off facts, figures, and phylum that I'm clearly way too daft to comprehend.
But I know enough to say "wow" when the feeling hits me, and Volcanoes of the Deep Sea contains a healthy handful of "wow" moments, and it's things both technical and natural that'll have you blinking your eyes in disbelief. For those who've never seen any of the IMAX nature documentaries, suffice to say that your eyeballs are in for a bona-fide buffet of visual coolness. Just a nice long helicopter shot that scans the ocean's surface will have your ocular orbs aroused ... and we haven't even dived beneath the surface yet!
It's 12,000 feet straight down, and this is where our scientist pals are on the search for a specific sort of fossil ... which is sort of like digging through New Jersey on a search for one specific grasshopper. Down here in the deepest of The Deep we're witness to dozens of creatures almost too mysterious to contemplate; sea life that seems to have no trouble thriving in an underwater atmosphere that would boil a lobster in five seconds flat.
The ocean floor is encrusted with petrified lava and small volcanoes fill the water with lovely plumes of black and amazingly poisonous smoke. And it's here that our deep-sea fissure-men find all sorts of amazing discoveries: translucent little thingies and amorphous cellular whatchamacallits. Hey, I don't have to be a marine biologist to just appreciate the stark and beautiful weirdness of this undersea netherworld.
If there's one step the filmmakers use (and overuse) it's the employment of speculative animation. Let's face it: When you're privy to this sort of real-life fantasy world, there's no reason to jazz up the production with animated geegaws and man-made light shows. But there's still more than enough here to dazzle your eyes and engage your brains; perhaps the extra animations were just tossed in to keep the film flowing.
If nature shows are just your cup of tea and you're looking for one on DVD that brings the deepest parts of the ocean to life in splendid visual style, Volcanoes is one you should absolutely add to your rental list. It might not be as flashy or dramatic as the ones produced by James Cameron, but Volcanoes of the Deep Sea is still good fun for the science geek in all of us. And if you have no science geek whatsoever in you, feel free to just sit back and feast your eyes on the craziest aquarium you ever will see.
(There, that wasn't so hard. I made it sound pretty cool, didn't I?)
Video: Presented in a Widescreen format that (as far as I can tell) tries to replicate the IMAX aspect ratio, the documentary looks quite great across the board. Not that I have all that much experience judging the technical merits of IMAX-format DVD transfers, but my eyeballs found no fault with the flick.
Audio: Choose between Dolby Digital 5.1 (English and French) or DTS. Either way you're getting a "specially mixed and mastered" aural presentation. So get those speakers tuned up.
Consider that the main feature only runs about 45 minutes, the fine folks at Image Entertainment were wise to include a big bucket of extra features. There's an 18-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that offers precisely what it sounds like, a 28-minute educational video entitled Voyage into the Abyss (which seems to be for the kids, but fed me quite a lot of information anyway), a deep sea trivia quiz, some text-based lessons called Hot Film - Cool Facts, a few passages of the music soundtrack that's set to a photo gallery, an about the director section that offers some information on filmmaker Stephen Low, a few other text-based features entitled Dive into Learning More! and Synergy of Science & Cinema and a collection of trailers for Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, Super Speedway, and Fighter Pilot - Operation Red Flag.
Pop on just about any old Discovery Channel nature documentary and watch me devolve into a vegetable for 45 minutes, which is why I found a lot to like in Volcanoes of the Deep Sea. It taught me a little bit about some of the oddest mega-deep sea creatures under the sun (way under), and more importantly, it showed me lots of awesome undersea stuff that, normally, I'd never get a chance to check out. (I hate to swim.) Science geeks should have a grand old time with this DVD, and if your home theater has a screen that comes close to approximating IMAX-level hugeness, then consider this DVD documentary a must-see. (Or call me; I'll bring mine over!)