Probably the most widely known and influential director of IMAX documentaries (aside from Stephen Low), Greg MacGillivray is known for such films as "Everest", "Stormchasers", "The Living Sea" and many, many other large-format docs. His latest is "Hurricane on the Bayou", a film that was originally conceived to show how the loss of important wetlands would lead to major storms having a much easier path into New Orleans, as the wetlands provided enough of a barrier to keep storm surge in check.
The documentary focuses in on some of the wildlife of the area, such as a mother 'gator and her children, and highlights some of the culture, with a few famed local musicians, such as Allen Toussaint, Tab Benoit and Amanda Shaw. The documentary's first half also discusses how the wetlands provide a buffer for storm surges (scientific studies by the Army Corps of Engineers suggest that every 2.7 miles of wetlands can reduce deadly storm surges by a foot) and how quickly we are losing the wetlands in the area (a chunk the size of a tennis court is lost every minute; a shocking amount overall has been lost in the last century.) It has only gotten worse recently - 50 years ago, Louisana was losing 10 square miles of land a year - now it's 25.
The film was shot in 2005 and the production wanted to show how - given the severe loss of wetlands near New Orleans - a category 5 storm coming near the area could be absolutely devastating. The filmmakers created some storm scenes themselves, including a rescue. When the film went into post-production, Katrina - a category 5 - hit.
MacGillivray managed to quickly borrow a helicopter from the set of "Miami Vice" to head back to New Orleans. Members of the production camped - in the dark - at screenwriter Glen Pitre's house. As they headed out both on land an in the air (trying to help where they could), the IMAX cameras captured tragic, unthinkable devastation. As horrific and saddening as the news footage was, seeing submerged homes for miles in 70MM is once again heartbreaking.
Meryl Streep is listed as the film's narrator, but the musicians largely take over as narrators throughout the film, sharing their own stories about the area and filling in with some additional facts. During and after the storm, the filmmakers turn to the local musicians to share their stories - teenager Amanda Shaw is devastated when her grandparents are missing and possibly thought to be lost.
The film is not meant to be political, and although there are momentary hints at how unprepared and unsuccessful the rescue effort was, the filmmakers mainly choose to focus on the tragic human and environmental losses that occured as a result of Katrina. The final moments of the film show the early moments of New Orleans on the slow road to recovery.
VIDEO: Image Entertainment presents "Hurricane on the Bayou" in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame. Presentation quality is stellar, as the large-format documentary looked crystal clear throughout, with most scenes also showing impressive depth to the image. While a couple of tiny traces of artifacting were spotted in the few dark scenes, there were otherwise no flaws spotted. Colors looked bright and well-saturated, with no smearing or other concerns.
SOUND: The film is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Surrounds are used for rain, wind and other storm sounds during the film's intense storm sequences and are used mostly for music during the remainder of the film. Audio quality remained exceptional, with crisp, rich-sounding music, clear dialogue and well-recorded effects. The DTS presentation is mildly improved over the Dolby Digital track, as the storm sequences have a bit more punch and the musical score sounded a bit crisper, cleaner and less "speaker-specific" than the Dolby Digital edition.
EXTRAS: A 31-minute "making of" documentary follows the filmmakers as they set out to make a film about the loss of wetlands in Louisiana and how a hurricane could do greater damage now - more than ever - due to the loss of these important wetlands. When the filmmakers tried to create storm sequences (even using National Guard as extras), they never imagined what would happen soon after. The second half of the documentary details the experiences of the participants, as the filmmakers made the decision to head back into the city, loading up trucks and driving across the country from Los Angeles. One woman interviewed discusses how the water rose so fast that she made the decision to put her family's names on the wall so if they didn't make it, someone would at least know they were there. Overall, this is definitely an informative and moving "making of".
We also get an 11 minute documentary on the MacGillivray/Freeman films, trailers for 5 other MacGillivray/Freeman films, text about 'gators, text about the musicians and text about the Audibon Society, as well as a movie quiz.
Final Thoughts: A powerful and enjoyable IMAX documentary, "Hurricane on the Bayou" manages to fit in a lot in a short period, taking a look at the wildlife in the wetlands, the culture of New Orleans and the tragic losses caused by Katrina. It ends with a reminder that, while the area has started to recover, it still needs help. Recommended.