(movie review written in 4/02)
The subject of several books and, apparently, a couple of upcoming major motion pictures, Sir Ernest Shackleton's seemingly nightmarish journey into the Antarctic has been turned, in this case, into a moving and beautifully filmed large-screen portrait of the bravery that Shackleton and crew showed when the situation got progressively worse.
In 1914, Shackleton and 27 other men set out in the Endurance to try and cross Antarctica. The journey started off well, then the first of several crises arose. The ship found itself in the midst of an almost otherworldly landscape of ice blocks, drifting in the ocean and becoming more tightly packed as the ship progressed. While the ship broke through most of the ice, when it was decided that the ship should stop to concerve fuel, the ice froze around the boat, trapping the entire crew in the middle of a very cold nowhere, with no way to contact the outside world.
They decide to wait out the thaw, playing football just off to the side of the ship and surviving on what was on the well-packed ship. This went on for nine straight months, a length of time in one place that would likely drive most people crazy. Spring eventually arrives and what was not a good situation has now surprisingly grown worse. Rather than seeing the ship freed of its icy locks, the newly thawed ice blocks begin to break the ship apart as the men watch in disbelief.
Thus begins a journey that covers over a thousand miles, as Shackleton's leadership keeps the men believing that they will, one day, be saved. I won't ruin anymore for those not familiar, as there's a lot more to the adventure. Director George Butler's film is interesting in that, for all the astounding IMAX photography that was done for this picture, the black and white photography taken by Frank Hurley in 1914 that is shown here is almost equally as thrilling to be able to witness. The film itself is a very nicely balanced mixture of recreated scenes that were done with IMAX cameras (IMAX cinematographer Reed Smoot recently won an award from Kodak for advancement of large format film), Hurley's photography and maps to keep the audience aware of the geography and how far the journey has gone.
Narration is provided by Kevin Spacey, who does a fine job with somewhat overwritten material. The performers featured in the reinactments are very convincing, as well. As the majority of the reinactments were really filmed in the Antarctic, it probably wasn't too difficult to appear freezing. A group of curious penguins also make a cameo appearance.
Overall, the question is whether or not "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure" is worthwhile and I really do think it is. IMAX films, always costly no matter what time of day and often short, can sometimes leave viewers displeased. Personally, I don't think this will be one of them. It's a moving, very inspiring, well-crafted and frequently dramatic large-format picture that's one of the best that I've seen in an IMAX theater in quite a while. "Shackleton" is one of the rare IMAX films that I went back to see again on the big screen not once, but twice. I still find the ending of the journey, as presented in this exceptional film, very moving and emotional.
VIDEO: Image Entertainment presents "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure" in 1.33:1 full-frame (most IMAX films are presented on home video in 1.33:1 full-frame; however, this has changed, as some are now presented on DVD in anamorphic widescreen. Still, this depends on materials available and other factors.) As previously mentioned, the film itself is a mixture of footage and still photos that were originally shot during Shackleton's journey and new IMAX photography done by Reed Smoot, who captures the haunting beauty of the Antarctic landscape wonderfully. It should absolutely be noted that Smoot, director George Butler and crew did not film these Antarctic sequences on some set with a fake backdrop - they actually went to the frozen landscape where the story took place. The actual 1914 footage has apparently been restored somewhat for this film; while it does look impressively good, given the age, there are still instances where it does show some very noticable wear. However, the ability to see the real images from the actual journey adds to the experience considerably.
As for the image quality of this presentation, it is certainly very good, but does show a few more concerns than some of Image Entertainment's other recent IMAX offerings. Sharpness and detail are superb for the new IMAX footage and, although obviously a bit of the majesty of the images are lost in the translation to the small-screen, the film still looks crisp and well-defined.
Again, I did have a few concerns with the image quality, none of which had to do with the older footage, which I of course knew was going to appear worn. Slight-to-mild edge enhancement is sometimes noticable during some of the new IMAX footage, as were a couple of specks on the print used. No pixelation or other faults were noticed during the presentation, though.
As to be expected from a film that takes place in the Antarctic, "Shackleton" doesn't have a particularly vibrant color palette for the most part. Although there are some stunning sunsets that are captured beautifully on the large-format film, most of the picture is pretty bleak in appearance. A few faults keep this presentation from being as impressive as most of Image Entertainment's usual offerings, but I still found the image quality enjoyable.
SOUND: Image Entertainment presents "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure" in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. This is not one of the usual IMAX soundtracks that provide aggressive surround use and enveloping audio, although not because the filmmakers simply didn't try. Given the material, this is really one of the more dialogue & narration/score driven large-format films that I've seen. There are a few sequences (such as some rough sea moments) that do use the surrounds very well and even a few moments that provide slight ambience, but most scenes provide audio that is focused from the front speakers. Audio quality remained very enjoyable throughout the film, as the dramatic and often genuinely uplifting score sounded rich and crisp, while narration and dialogue also sounded consistently clear. Both the Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks did provide a fine audio experience, but the DTS soundtrack did provide somewhat stronger clarity and a slightly warmer, fuller sound.
MENUS: Basic, non-animated main and sub-menus.
EXTRAS: Image Entertainment has released many films produced by the MacGillivray/Freeman team on DVD. The MacGillivray/Freeman productions have become known by IMAX films for producing excellent "making of" documentaries that join the production teams in their quest to capture stunning footage at the ends of the Earth. These documentaries are often as long as the IMAX films themselves. Unfortunately, "Shackleton" isn't one of those productions and, quite possibly, there wasn't any "behind-the-scenes" material available about this film. All that's included here are trailers for "Island of the Sharks" (a review of that DVD is coming soon) and "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure", along with DVD credits and a trivia quiz.
Final Thoughts: I think one of the best compliments I can give "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure" is that it does a remarkable job of compressing the enormous, powerful adventure into 40 minutes. It mixes old footage from the journey and new IMAX footage seamlessly and Kevin Spacey does a terrific job as the narrator. I've seen this film six times now and it still remains a powerful and inspiring look at one of history's most incredible adventures - if anything, I enjoy it more with each viewing. Hopefully, history teachers will choose to show this enjoyable and superbly made film to students, as its 9/3/02 DVD release is close to when most schools start in September.
Image Entertainment's DVD release offers fine video and very good audio quality, but little in the way of supplements. Still, I think "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure" is one of the best IMAX films that I've seen and I highly recommend taking a look at the DVD release.