I've noticed that some IMAX releases in recent years have been more about flashy ways to use the format ("L5: Lost City In Space", etc). IMAX filmmakers need to realize that the most entertaining, most satisfying and most genuinely enjoyable large-format pictures are those that both educate and entertain, taking the audience to places across this Earth that they've never been to and more than likely never will. "Journey Into Amazing Caves" is a terrific example of the IMAX's format's ability to educate and entertain, which is not suprising, given the director.
Director Greg MacGillivray is one of the IMAX format's leading directors, who started in 1976 with one of the format's earliest features, "To Fly!". Since then, he has ventured into severe weather with "Stormchasers", through California with "Adventures in Wild California" and up Mt. Everest with the remarkable "Everest", as well as other pictures in-between. "Journey Into Amazing Caves" is a sequel of sorts to "Everest": instead of going up mountains, we're taken far underneath the Earth.
The film revolves around scientists Hazel Barton and Nancy Aulenbach, who go deep into the Earth's caves to find bacteria that could possibly be used as medicine to cure illness. These bacteria are called "extremophiles", or life forms that somehow survive in inhospitable places. The first stop, caves in the American Southwest, is where the women find some incredible rock formations and collect samples. The IMAX format captures the underground structures wonderfully. The women then kayak down a raging river to look for more entrances.
The second stop on the tour is probably one of the most impressive I've ever seen in an IMAX feature. The two women head North, awaiting a cold patch so that they can drop down hundreds of feet into a glacier ice cave to get a sample of ice at the bottom. Meanwhile, the ice creaks as if it's about to fall down around them and the tension of the scene is remarkable. Several shots during this sequence are about as visually stunning as something from "Lord of the Rings", especially one where a streak of light falls through into the caves as the team heads downwards.
The last area the two scientists visit are caves near Cancun. This section offers the most stunning scenery and also about the most risk for the scientists - this part of their journey towards discovery leads them underwater into rather thin caves, where a wrong turn can mean oxygen runs out. All three adventures are different and very thrilling and engaging in their own particular ways.
Technical credits are also superb, as is expected of a MacGillivray/Freeman IMAX production. In fact, I really have to wonder how many of the shots in this film were achieved, especially some of the scenes underwater. Given the fact that the underwater caves aren't that big and the giant IMAX camera can apparently hold only a few minutes worth of film, how were these scenes shot in such a seamless manner? However the cinematographers did it, they really achieved several awesome shots capturing the film's spectacular scenery. Liam Neeson, who did the narration for "Everest", is extremely solid providing narration once again here. The Moody Blues provide the music, as well.
If anything, my one major complaint about "Journey Into Amazing Caves" is one that I often complain about after watching some of the best large-format presentations - I wanted more. While the amount of information offered didn't seem to leave out any important details, I would have liked this "Journey" to continue.
VIDEO: Image Entertainment presents "Journey Into Amazing Caves" in both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame. While most IMAX films have previously been presented in full-frame for their home video releases, Image Entertainment has been giving viewers the option of an anamorphic widescreen edition starting a few IMAX releases ago. That is certainly a great thing: while Image's previous full-frame releases were quite beautiful, their recent anamorphic presentations of IMAX releases have offered image quality that is often downright stunning. "Journey Into Amazing Caves" is no different. The picture quality is frequently so clear one might be tempted to reach into their screen. Sharpness and detail are either excellent or even very impressive, with a rich, smooth and "film-like" image. The underwater sequences in the third section of the film are especially so crystal clear that I was amazed.
In terms of flaws, I found very few. A couple of scenes showed the slightest hint of pixelation and edge enhancement. I certainly didn't find these flaws to be very noticable at all, though. The print used is in marvelous condition, with no specks, marks and only a slight trace of grain.
Colors looked fantastic throughout the program. The deep blues of the ice chambers, the rich browns and oranges of the caves and the beautiful colors of the forests and caves near Cancun all appeared rich, well-saturated and vivid. Black level was solid and flesh-tones looked natural, as well. This beautiful film has really gotten terrific treatment from Image.
SOUND: Image Entertainment offers "Journey Into Amazing Caves" in both English DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (for the widescreen edition - the full-frame edition does not offer DTS, but offers Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in English, Spanish and French). This is not the most aggressive IMAX sound experience that I have listened to but, I still felt this was an exceptionally well-produced soundtrack that not only provided terrific quality, but occasional surround use that was appropriate and thrilling. The kayak scene down the river and the ice cave were examples of this surround use; the kayak scene puts the viewer on the boat, as waves seem to splash into the room. During the journey into the ice caves, the ice seems to crack and fall apart around the viewer, as these noises are heard distinctly in the surrounds.
The score was also quite enveloping, not sounding "speaker-specific", but really filling the entire listening space wonderfully and sounding crystal clear. Dialogue from the two women remains crisp and clear, as do the film's sound effects. Comparing the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks revealed a fair, if not major amount of difference. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track was already very good, but the DTS track seemed slightly crisper and warmer, with a bit richer bass.
Making Of: Image Entertainment has included a 40-minute "making of" documentary that takes the viewer on-location to watch as the cast and crew of the movie have to come face-to-face with the sometimes brutal or dangerous conditions. In this case, the most stunning footage involves the behind-the-scenes looks at how the cast and crew attempted to try and get both people and equipment into the ice caves. Footage of what was nearly a very serious accident is particularly scary and there are other risks; large animals are in the area during filming of the final section, while filming in the underwater caves presents a lot of beauty, but also a lot of further challenges. This documentary is a really enjoyable look behind-the-scenes at what the crew had to do achieve such remarkable imagery and still provide an interesting story at the film's core.
As with several other new IMAX re-releases/re-releases from IMAX, the big new supplement included in this 2-DVD set for "Journey Into Amazing Caves" is an second DVD, which includes the film in WMV High Definition. This can only be played on a PC DVD-ROM drive. Requirements include Windows XP, 2.4GHZ processor,64MB video card,384MB of RAM and a 16-bit sound card.
Also: Director's bio, caves books (text list), movie trivia quiz and trailers for "Dolphins", "Magic Of Flight", "Stormchasers", "The Living Sea" and "The Discoverers".
Final Thoughts: "Journey Into Amazing Caves" is really a winner - the two scientists are passionate about their quest, while we're also provided spectacular photography and visits to places most people would never be able to go otherwise. It's engaging, beautiful and after 40 minutes, I wanted to know even more. Image Entertainment has also provided a superb DVD release of the large-format film; not only do we get stellar audio/video quality, but some enjoyable supplements, as well. Those who have a capable PC can also watch the show in WMV HD on their PC DVD-ROM. Highly Recommended.