Judge Mike Pinsky tried to make a nature film once, but the residents all kicked him out of their colony before he could film their naked volleyball game.
"Nature will always contain mysteries. We don't need to solve them all. We just need to be open and let it fill us."—Thai narrator
IMAX films tend to be dizzying experiences in more ways than one. For many people, sitting with heads back in those theater seats, enveloped by that massive arcing ceiling, the scale of the average IMAX film can often be overwhelming, especially combined with the throbbing sound system. But IMAX films also work, often too hard, to throw the audience into such scenes of nerve-fraying visual splendor that only a few minutes is enough to make most people stumble toward the exit feeling like a year's worth of National Geographic had just been flash-downloaded to their brains.
Fortunately, most IMAX presentations are fairly short, and the monumental landscapes and oversized animals (even the insects are bigger than anything that 50s horrormeister Bert I. Gordon could have imagined throwing up on screen) are usually interspersed with tedious scenes of scientists gearing up to dive into the ocean or climb the mountain. Of course, the real reason for all those barely photogenic scientists is so that the filmmakers can justify spending their grant money by celebrating the accomplishments of science. The real reason the audience showed up is to see the landscapes and the animals. To see the glories of the Earth with the IMAX camera as the eye of the gods.
Sacred Planet, although made by Canadians, is paid for by Disney. So there is no need to parade scientists. The conceit here is to see the world through the eyes of native peoples who sanctify the Earth, with a few words by Robert Redford, who apparently had a few free moments in between mailing me urgent envelopes requesting my help to save the environment. Everything you have ever seen before in an IMAX film is here. Enormous fields with herds of running animals? Check. Time lapse photography of rolling clouds over static landscapes? Check. Helicopter shots of snowy mountain peaks? Check. We even get speeded-up footage of urban life, meant to remind us that the pace of human society moves very quickly. Sacred Planet is sort of like an IMAX greatest hits collection.
The visuals are all pretty spectacular. Although at 47 minutes, it does get exhausting. Director Jon Long breaks the film down into sections, each narrated by an "elder" of the indigenous culture. We go from the American southwest to Namibia to Thailand to Alaska to Borneo. There is a lot of talk about the Earth as our "mother" and the importance of living in harmony in nature. It is all meant to be stirring, but it feels altogether too familiar. While direct Jon Long has clearly spent a lot of Disney's money traveling around the world to collect marvelous footage, the audio portion of Sacred Planet clearly seems less important. The music is non-descript new age filler, and the narration contains Sierra Club calendar remarks like "we are the endangered species."
Perhaps it is unfair to compare Sacred Planet to some of the more adventurous entries in the "nature montage" genre, like Baraka or anything by Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels, Anima Mundi). Apart from a few examples in the genre, most nature montage films portray "nature" (and defining that could take us all day) as anything other than pristine and glorious, with human endeavor only seen as soulless and disconnected. Sacred Planet is part of a recent tradition of nature montage films that offer not a realistic portrait of the nature/culture divide, but an escape for the audience meant to maintain the divide and to hold nature up as a privileged other, at least for the duration of the narrative.
Of course, it might be fair to compare this approach to that of Walt Disney's True Life Adventures of a previous generation. Walt often tried to impose a story onto the visuals, even if the story (as in the case of, say, lemmings or baby bears) bore little resemblance to the real behaviors of the animals. The closest Sacred Planet comes to such patronizing moves is during the "making of" featurette included on the DVD, during which director Long notes the "childlike quality" of the natives he is filming. It would do to note that we see those natives wearing modern clothing during the behind-the-scenes footage, but in the feature, they only seem to appear in loincloths, as if they have never come in contact with civilization before.
During his commentary track, Jon Long admits to doing most of his research for Sacred Planet by watching other nature documentaries and browsing the internet. Oh well, at least the film looks pretty. Disney offers crystalline 5.1 audio tracks in Dolby Surround and DTS, with an anamorphic widescreen transfer or full frame (which is more in accord with the film's 4:3 IMAX aspect ratio). Along with the commentary track and featurette, Disney includes a music video incorporating outtakes from the film. This is actually a clever way to present leftover footage like this, given its fragmentary and non-narrative nature.
I enjoyed the scale and beauty of Sacred Planet for much of its running time, although as it wore on, I found myself questioning it in ways I suspect its creators did not intend. During the Thailand sequence of the film, there is an interesting sequence of images during which shots of elephants are crosscut with statues of elephants adorning a temple. Nature in Sacred Planet exists to be worshipped by humanity. When elevated to this spiritual level, nature seems to take on a somewhat sterile aspect. All animals are benign; all environments generous, provided you say your proper prayers. Indeed, most nature montage films place the environment just slightly beyond our reach, leaving us as outsiders. We see stunning vistas, but never feel the heat or cold. Lots of impressive animals, but no smells or even noises. Just the wash of music. Yes, Sacred Planet does briefly acknowledge that animals are killed and used by natives, but everyone is beautiful and clean and free of disease. It makes you want to throw off your clothes and go native.
And then I remember that I probably would not last five minutes in the jungle. And neither, I daresay, would most of you.
Director Jon Long and his collaborators are found guilty of a patronizing approach to a complex issue, but are released because the court finds their good intentions sufficient mitigating evidence. Court is adjourned.
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