IMAX films are pretty pointless on Standard DVD, which simply can't reproduce the necessary level of detail in the outsized format's wide angle shots. But Blu-ray's 1080p resolution and large screen projection recaptures some of the appeal from those gigantic special venue screenings. Director George Casey has been making short-form docus since 1974, and his 1991 Ring of Fire fits neatly into the IMAX natural history format: a little science, a lot of travelogue, some non-controversial deeper musings, and plenty of eye-catching visuals. In this case we get perhaps ten minutes of prime volcano footage, which of course has a heightened immediacy and impact in HD.
Ring of Fire starts with a cruise over a computer map, showing the biggest volcanoes along the Pacific Rim of Fire. This volcanic belt indeed extends from South America all the way to Alaska and then down through Japan and Asia to the East Indies. The episodic structure begins in San Francisco with the (then) recent Bay Area quake of '89. Fisheye views of the city provide a backplate to inset video images of the major quake damage, especially the collapse of that long two-level automobile bridge. For San Francisco-philes, the footage also documents the path of the Embarcadero Freeway, which has since been dismantled.
The script has a habit of tossing in 'human interest' sidebar comments. We see that Giants baseball fans, after having an afternoon game interrupted by the quake, are back in attendance just two weeks later. To the writers of Ring of Fire, this is evidence of the indomitable spirit of Americans in the face of adversity. Next slide, please.
The show then moves to Oregon, and another set of (very dramatic) small-screen inserts, this time a progression of still frames of the enormous 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption. Hundreds of square miles of forest are still knocked down like jackstraws, although we now see green growth beginning to reclaim the land. Researchers brave the inside of the volcano, where a pressure dome a thousand feet tall is rising.
A computer graphics sequence shows a cross-section of the earth with the tectonic plates grinding away, and superheated magma exploiting flaws in the crust to reach upward and form volcanoes. This looks fine, but Ring of Fire also uses some limited digital effects to enhance shots of lava fountains, pools of red-hot lava at night, showers of sparks, etc. As we look to the IMAX format for authentic views of nature, some of these shots seem like cheating.
A stopoff in Hawaii shows us Mauna Loa and Kiluea erupting at the same time, with excellent coverage of both events. The best shots in the show are a gray-on-gray spectacle of Mauna Loa spewing huge volumes of smoke and gas into the atmosphere, and tossing showers of rocks and boulders into the air. The scale is enormous. Underwater footage shows the magma forced to cool in the ocean, enlarging the Island with new volcanic real estate.
A rain of ashes in Japan is followed by some native ceremonies in Indonesia (or the Philippines?). These become a travelogue-like opportunity for a staged dance ensemble to represent authentic native volcano worship. That somewhat dispiriting notion is amplified by a sulphur mine in Chile, where the narrator blithely informs us that the sulphur harvesters breath in the poisonous dust and rarely live more than 30 years, but persist in the dangerous lifestyle as sort of an existential tradition. No more facts are given. We can't tell if we're witnessing some perverse anthropological phenomenon, or just some outdated neocolonial BS masking appalling economic & working conditions in foreign countries: "Don't worry son, they like diving for pennies in the oily harbor water." The scripted attempt to link human traditions and rhythms to the Ring of Fire is not very persuasive: Chilean laborers die for love of volcanoes, while those soulful San Franciscans bravely return to their baseball stadium? Ring of Fire is a good volcano travelog reaching too far for a meaningful statement.
Image/Inception's Blu-ray of Ring of Fire delivers the impressive volcano action in impressive HD, and thus earns its keep. Robert Foxworth's narration is smooth. The movie comes with audio in English, French and Spanish, but carries no subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ring of Fire Blu-ray rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.