McGillivray Freeman Films has consistently provided IMAX Theaters with some of their most memorable product, including To Fly and Everest. That tradition continues with Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, a compendium of travelogue and environmental elements that also features several jangly folk tunes by the Dave Matthews Band. Though the film is being a bit disingenuous by advertising itself as narrated by Robert Redford (Redford contributes a handful of lines, while most of the film is a first person narrative by author-photographer Wade Davis), it nonetheless offers some awesome vistas of the Canyon while actually spending a bit more time exploring the ecology of the Colorado River.
Growing up in Utah, vacation trips to the mighty Colorado and equally impressive Grand Canyon were "no big deal." It's only been in my adulthood as I've encountered people who have never seen the majesty of the Grand Canyon or experienced the wonder of the "West's Mississippi" that I've finally realized how lucky I was to grow up in a region of such abundant natural spectacles. Unfortunately, as Adventure makes at times perhaps too abundantly clear, the Colorado is a river in decline, hamstrung by dams that have seriously altered its efficacy in both carving the Grand Canyon and also, probably more importantly, providing irrigation water to those downstream, notably in Mexico. The film doesn't shirk from showing absolutely bone dry deltas south of our border where once a raging torrent flowed. It's especially ironic since the two dams that hold back the force of the Colorado were put in place to "water" such desert cityscapes as Las Vegas.
Even that probably well-intentioned effort to provide water for the arid southwest is now reaping fewer and fewer dividends. Adventure has some actually shocking footage showing the decline of manmade Lake Powell through the years. The walls of the lake's "holding tank" bear huge horizontal white lines where the water level once was. That's now a thing of the past as the lake has sunk to a level hundreds of feet lower and shows no signs of stopping. Environmental groups are pushing to have the dams removed so that nature can find its original course again and the river can hopefully reclaim its former glory. That of course begs the question as to what's going to happen to Las Vegas. And of course the larger question, as footage of such faraway drought stricken areas of Africa shows, is, what happens to the rest of us after Las Vegas dries up?
Though the environmental warnings in Adventure are discomfiting, to say the least, the grandeur of the scenery helps to make those warnings all the more urgent while also offering a little visual relief to the direness of the narration. Davis takes us on a tour down the Colorado, with his college-bound daughter and college buddy Robert Kennedy, Jr. and his daughter. Of course Kennedy is famous for his work in restoring rivers (notably the Hudson, though he's frequently been in my neck of the woods to promote cleanup of Oregon's Willamette River), and he offers some personal reminiscences in the changes on the banks of the Colorado in the past 40 years, none of them good.
The film, as in all MFF offerings, has some astoundingly staged shots, including impeccably well handled aerial moments (one especially incredible one starts as a closeup of tourists on the edge of a Canyon bluff, then arcs up slowly, and completely steadily, becoming an awe inspiring view of the miles and miles of Canyon vistas). There are also some excitingly visceral moments filmed from the back of the big inflatable boats that forge through the rapids. Some of this river footage is simply unbelievable, as when Davis' daughter flips her kayak and can't get herself righted for a moment or two, or other moments when whole boats (these are huge craft) are subsumed by the Colorado's torrent for what seems an eternity. The soundtrack has some great Dave Matthews Band songs (mixed beneath the omnipresent water sounds, so you DMB fanatics are forewarned) along with several instrumental outings that are also appealing.
Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk may alienate less environmentally active people with its obviously ecological focus. Even those people, however, will have to try hard not to be impressed by the majesty of both the Canyon and the sections of the Colorado that remain unfettered. For the rest of us, Adventure remains as both a warning cry and an amazing technical achievement that brings one of the United States' crown jewels into your living room theater with an immediacy that is both amazing and surprisingly emotionally engaging.