Another in the ever-growing list of wow-’em in 3-D IMAX medium-length films that shuffles about from one special venue to another, “Mysteries of the Unseen World” has now landed, after nearly a year on the circuit, at Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the most visited museum in North America. I suspect most of the locals going to catch it will be school children and their teachers, which is exactly what the folks at National Geographic, the film’s producer, should expect. Their film is an educational wonder, hopefully opening minds, young and old alike, to the world around us. One any of us rarely see.
Broken down into four segments, the 39-minute excursion takes the viewer, via eye-popping cinematography, to the universe of invisible light, the spectacle of life moving too slow or too fast, and through the looking glass into the microcosmos. It’s a journey that zooms about the screen, informing and involving (and perhaps inspiring) anyone watching that there’s more to be seen than our eyes can capture. Indeed, you really have to pay close attention and stay focused, as the 3-dimensional film format will force you to re-jigger your vision to keep your focal point aligned.
Producers Lisa Truitt and Jini Dürr, and director Louie Schwartzberg and most of their crew, all well versed in large-format filmmaking, keep the production somewhat light-hearted, but their aim is to make sure your jaw drops from all the science being tossed at you. For the award-winning Schwartzberg (with a specialty in time-lapse photography), it probably is a dream come true, having approached National Geographic with this idea over 10 years ago. The film itself was nearly two years in the making.
Using cutting-edge technology the film begins with a look at those vast spectrums of “Invisible Light” (x-rays, infrared, Gamma, microwaves, etc.). The filmmakers use a skateboarder as their reference point in this segment (he returns at the film’s end), but quickly diverge to a massive and impressive parade of special effects. A bumble bee’s-eye view of ultraviolet light, or a mosquito’s ability to see the warm (and bite-worthy) parts of your body. The narration (earnestly delivered by a whispery Forest Whitaker) tries for an out-of-ballpark experience, but barely gets to first base with the likes of “The more invisible lightwaves we see, the more secrets we uncover about the world around us.” At least the visuals and computer graphics (and enervating musical score by Paul Haslinger) make up for Whitaker’s somnolent monotone.
Segment Two, “Too Slow” begins by showcasing the pioneering work of Dr. John Nash Ott, the father of time-lapse movie photography, whose self-built equipment back in the 1930s could follow the growth of plants by taking single shots of them 15 minutes apart. The resulting film, projected at the regular speed, revealed wondrous germination. There’s a clip from “Dancing Flowers,” a 1950s short that shows the comic use of this technique when synced with a music track. Modern day uses abound (air traffic flows, weather patterns, etc.)
Next up is “Too Fast” and the play toy is now a high-speed camera. With a nod to Harold Edgerton, an electrical engineering professor at M.I.T. who, in the late 1930s, used stroboscopic equipment to capture images of fast-moving objects. You’ll get to see popcorn pop at more than 100 times the normal speed (24 frames per second) of film. Or a majestic owl nearly land in your lap. Or see how a dragonfly flies. Most impressive are the thunderous lightning strikes shot using a Phantom camera at nearly 10,000 FPS.
The final chapter, “Too Small” uses electron microscopy to peer into the small world and creatures around us. It’s breathtaking and bizarre. Skin flakes, insect parts, animal hairs. Ew! Nightmarish images of head lice and other mites on our bodies. Definitely my favorite segment, as it delves into the nano-world. Watch a nano-size piece of gold being injected into the blood stream to fight cancer. Alas, no clips of Raquel Welch in 1966’s “Fantastic Voyage,” a sci-fi tale about a submarine (and crew) shrunk to microscopic size, then injected into the blood stream to save a wounded diplomat.
As for “Mysteries of the Unseen World,” it’s a truly amazing slice of life.