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A 3-D nature documentary originally in IMAX sounds like a perfect item for a home 3-D setup: lots of eye candy suitable to show off one's equipment to visitors. The forty-minute Mysteries of the Unseen World is bright and colorful and directed with the kind of smoothness one associates with television ads -- an ever-moving camera, slick transitions, classy special effects.
It's essentially an expanded version of one of MGM's Pete Smith short subjects from the 1930s that showed off the wonders of slow motion, micro- photography or time lapse tricks, promising to display things un-seeable by the naked eye. Thus viewers marveled at the grace of a high diver in slow-mo or watched as the camera caught a bullet in flight or revealed the secret of dealing cards off the bottom of a deck. Unseen World even offers a brief film clip from a Pete Smith-like vintage short.
The script by Mose Richards is almost as basic, surely meant to communicate to the family audiences that attend IMAX screenings. We do feel a bit patronized when the voiceover tells us that we're completely unaware of what's happening all around us - many people are hyper-aware. Tiny bugs fester on the plants in a rooftop garden, and tinier bugs live on those bugs and microorganisms thrive on them too. Our skins are covered with creepy crawly things and some of us have micro-monsters living on our eyelashes that look like the caterpillar-thing from First Men in the Moon. The air we breathe is full of dust, dust mites, pollen, dry skin flakes. And watch out because there's no hiding from 1001 kinds of radio waves above and below the range of human sight. They're slicing through our bodies at all times, like Darth Vader's light saber.
The slick visuals in Mysteries of the Unseen World illustrate the authors' points better than any lecture or photograph in a book. One of the best bits shows how the four wings of a dragonfly flutter independently of each other, enabling the insect to dart to and fro in patterns more precise than those of a hummingbird.
All of this is arranged in special 3-D d-d-d-depth, and anybody familiar with nature footage soon realizes that most of the framing of the action is far too optimized to be straight nature footage. Unseen World does have 'real' 3-D footage but I suspect that most of what we see is computer generated imagery, merely modeled after live action. It's beautiful, it's educational but it's still an animated image, not something from real life. In the live action sequences, the camera swoops from the sky to dart among buildings, finding people going about their business and kids skateboarding down on the sidewalks. We know that these scenes are likely digitally pasted together from pieces of live action augmented by CGI. This becomes obvious when moving cityscapes turn to "X-Ray Vision," with the interiors of buildings dissected to show their architectural structure as people made of glass walk and talk inside. It's showoff day for the digital effects people, whose names form a long list at the end of the show.
We expect to see computer animation for things happening on the micro- level, and Mysteries of the Unseen World has some terrific passages explaining the new work being done in nanotechnology. Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace can't be too far away, with little designer robots flitting around our vascular system, identifying and destroying cancerous cells. While you're at it, can you guys fix my hearing?
But much of the magic disappears when we suspect that CGI is used to stage things we should be able to see, so their visual impact can be optimized for IMAX and 3-D. The crude slow motion in the old Pete Smith films lacks the dazzling lighting, perfect framing and fluid transitions seen here. When what looks like a real 3-D setup is used on some object or scene, I'm fascinated. When I suspect that CG manipulation is involved, my interest drops to the same degree as when watching a special effect in a movie -- I'm one of those people who want a hard line drawn between docu reality and painted scenery.
One example from the film may give young minds a false impression about reality. When explaining the existence of invisible high and low- frequency radiation, infra-red, gamma, radio waves and all the others are visualized with animated wavy lines of various colors, moving sine waves, etc., just as they are pictured in geometric diagrams or how they appear on detection instruments. I suppose there's no way to show 'real' microwaves flying through the air: the only mental impression I get is that we exist in a soup of radiation of one kind or another. But these scenes will make kids think it's like a video game, with phaser blasts flying at them from all sides.
Some of the film's most interesting images were taken by an electron microscope. The accompanying making-of docu explains how specimens of tiny things like head lice (yum) were put onto the stage of an electron microscope (dead of course) for long sequences of frames as the stage rotates. 3-D was created by shooting a second eye's view with a 2-degree offset. The louse becomes a gruesome monster with giant hooks to hang onto hairs or one's scalp. But the images are in vibrant color... the monochrome electron-generated image has been visually mapped and painted after the fact, no doubt with a degree of accuracy.
Little kids will love everything in the show -- who doesn't like movies of fast things slowed down and slow things sped up? The marvelous Lou Schwartzberg has been shooting and directing docu footage for almost half a century now -- we've been enjoying his work ever since the 16mm days back in the early 1970s, when time-lapse shots of vines growing and flowers blooming were sheer magic. Much of Mysteries of the Unseen World captures the same thrill. But it's all taken to the kind of polish we'd expect in a Marvel superhero movie. Who will be content with normal nature cinematography after this? The show is like an illustrated diagram in a science book, one so pretty that viewers will mistake it for reality. The slight disappointment in this review is that I was promised views of an 'unseen' world. I can't always detect, and the docu doesn't discriminate, between docu reality, real images augmented with computer work, or pure computer animation. There's a difference. 1
One of the final chapters takes us to the ultra- big idea that nanotechnology will be able to produce carbon fibers so strong yet so light that it will be possible to build one of Tsilokovsky / Arthur C.Clarke's fabled space elevators. The camera tilts and twists as an elevator car that looks like a spaceship flies up the thin tower. But a key detail seems to ruin everything: the elevator car is powered by rockets. The whole point of a space elevator is to take rocketry out of the equation - to dispose of all that ecologically unfriendly fuel and combustion, not to mention the weight issue. But hey, it's nice to know that my children might live to see such a thing go into a practical planning stage.
Virgil Films and Entertainment's 3-D + 2D Blu-ray + DVD of Mysteries of the Unseen World is a handsome disc of this highly polished, professional production. The entertaining 3-D offers plenty of technically faultless little explosions, glittering items and swirls of microbes to be enjoyed in depth. The audio track is just as carefully assembled.
Some photos are offered as an extra, along with a making-of docu that concentrates on the experts charged with doing the electron microscope- based shots. The operation of the machine isn't impossible but the setup is, and this machine had to be installed in a matter of days, not months -- it needs a concrete foundation and shielding against all forms of outside radiation. That sounds difficult, with all those Phaser blasts naturally flying through the air.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. On the network news they've been showing commercials for one expensive drug, that uses a mini- drama of a doctor talking to a patient. The patient appears to be a live-action actress - but -- the female doctor is computer generated. She matches well but her eyes are a bit dead and her motions, right down to facial tics, are impossibly fluid. I'm assuming that the 'robot' doctor character has been created so that she can be easily changed -- to say something different, etc. - without having to re-shoot or re-hire expensive talent. I don't think most viewers can tell that they're watching a synthetic human. It's downright sinister, when you think about it... if we no longer can trust that what we're seeing in any motion picture or video, part of our connection to reality will be lost. Photographic evidence, I suspect, will sooner than later become inadmissible in a court.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.