Saturday, August 9, 2008

Two IMAX Productions: "Wolves" and "Mummies"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I salvaged the evening by heading for the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and going to two of the IMAX format movies there, Wolves and Mummies: Secrets of the Pharoahs. Interestingly, neither was produced by the MacGillivray-Freeman company that seems for a long time to have had a monopoly on filmmaking in the format — though MacGillivray-Freeman still makes the best IMAX films, the ones that most thrillingly exploit the you’re-in-the-middle-of-the-action appeal of the format and what’s become the signature IMAX shot, an airborne traveling shot through some great expanse of natural scenery (a waterfall, a glacier or, as in one film we saw a trailer for last night, the Grand Canyon) that delivers a marvelously vertiginous effect.

Wolves was actually produced by the National Wildlife Foundation, and it was made in 1999; it was a pretty typical Nature Channel-style show dividing its attention between the Nez Perce Native Americans, who were wiped out of the Northern plains but whose surviving remnants are returning to the area and attempting to restore something of the original ecological balance by re-introducing both buffalo and wolves; the wolves themselves, and particularly how they form and organize their packs and how they raise their young (they go from mother’s milk to already chewed meat regurgitated by mom so they get the idea that this is what they’re supposed to eat, to joining the packs and following along on the kills); and towards the end a story of a (straight) couple in the middle of Idaho who keep two wolves as companion animals (the animal-rights euphemism for “pets” is appropriate here because, pace Jack London, you can’t really tame a wolf — yes, it may be of the same genus as the dog — the Linnean name for the dog is Canis familiaris and for the wolf is Canis lupus — but it hasn’t had the centuries of breeding and reprogramming dogs have had to be nice to people and live in contemporary urban environments without resorting to its hunting instincts!) and actually take them around to schools and show them off to get schoolchildren over their prejudices against wolves, which date from the Middle Ages and the fairy tales about them that originated them. (A few illustrations of the story of Little Red Riding Hood and one shot of a full moon with a wolf baying under it are all we get of these legends.)

It was a pretty one-sided movie, though there was an interview with an Idaho cattleman who’s less than thrilled about the re-introduction of wolves anywhere near his ranches; when I looked it up on the commentary that came up was from a person who said it “Should be called ‘Hating the White Man,’” obviously objecting to the very strong pro-Indian slant taken by the movie — including a chilling still photo of a huge (about 100 feet high) pile of buffalo skulls and bones from the days in which the U.S. government was actually paying bounties to buffalo hunters to clear the plains of the great beasts to make room for white settlers and farmers.

Wolves was something of a mixed bag, and the IMAX format didn’t add much to it, but it was fun and at its best moments gave us a you-are-there sense of running with the wolf packs — and one rather humorous aspect was that it showed that, contrary to popular belief, the wolf really isn’t that efficient a predator and its chosen prey, musk oxen and buffalo, can evade it simply by gathering around each other in circles (and with their own horns and hooves these animals are not without defenses themselves!); it’s only when one of the prey animals breaks off from their fellows and can be attacked individually that the wolves have a chance. Maybe there’s a political/social/economic moral lesson in that … Wolves was directed by David Douglas from a script by him and Marc Strange, and wisely they picked former Band member Robbie Robertson as the narrator — and the background music, though credited to Michel Cusson, sounds a lot like the stuff Robertson composed and arranged for his CD The Native Americans (and was more appealing as background music than it had been on its own).

Mummies: Secrets of the Pharoahs was a more recent production (2007), directed by Keith Melton from a script by Arabella Cecil, and it was a more fascinating movie even though it too didn’t really exploit the IMAX format except for some vertiginous traveling shots through the actual Egyptian ruins at Abu Simbel, Karnak and Luxor. (I remember thinking it’s probably just as well that Melton’s film crew captured these sites while Hosni Mubarak is still alive, since once he croaks his most likely replacement will be a bunch of Taliban-style Islamic fundamentalists who will blow up all historic reminders of Egypt’s pre-Muslim past. Already Islamist goon squads in Egypt have successfully targeted tourists visiting Luxor for assassination.) It was one of those reconstructions you see on the History Channel, with footage of the actual historic sites intercut with reconstructions featuring actors playing Egyptian royalty, including Rameses II, the Pharoah of the Exodus — his mummy still exists, at least according to the film, and narrator Christopher Lee (probably picked because he played the murderous mummy in a cycle of films for Hammer!) said this is probably the only chance we’ll ever have to see the actual body of a Biblical character — as well as his queen Nefertari and their son (and his successor), Rameses III. (There are so many actors involved in the historical re-creations that, not counting narrator Lee, lists 19 performers in the cast.)

It was an appealing movie whose most interesting sequence was a digital re-creation of what Abu Simbel looked like when originally built, then as it was worn down and partially buried over the years, and finally as it looks today (the obvious template on which they built the digital imagery). Other than that it was the usual mixture of historical footage, documentary material and scientific scenes in which a group of modern researchers (“using a body donated to science,” the narration rather politely told us) actually duplicated, for the first time in over 2,500 years, the mummification process used in Egypt to get a clue as to where to go inside a mummy for recoverable DNA. Why they want to tap mummies for their DNA is never quite clearly explained here — it had something to do with attempting to trace the evolution of the malaria parasite (malaria having been a common cause of death in ancient Egypt, as it is through much of the Third World today) in hopes of getting a clue that will lead to more effective drugs for it. In any event, they found that mummification destroyed the DNA in the flesh and muscles, and if you wanted samples you had to go into the bones. (Interestingly, there’s a short item in this morning’s Los Angeles Times that says they’re doing DNA testing on two fetuses found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb to see if they were genetically related to him.)

Mummies essentially did what it set out to do, and if the film has a hero it was 1880’s American researcher Charles Wilbour (played by William Hope as the sort of guy who had a full beard and wore black suits and dress shoes even while spelunking in the Egyptian desert looking for the tombs of the Pharoahs), who saw authentic ancient artifacts in the Cairo bazaars, contacted the tomb robbers who were selling them there, tried to get them to show him where the big group tomb in the Valley of the Kings was where they were getting all this stuff, and when they didn’t cooperate turned them in to the authorities (which, given that Egypt was a quasi-colony then, meant going to an office with the name “Society of Antiquities” written on its door … in French) and had them forced to divulge the location of the tomb — thereby uncovering and recovering about 12 royal mummies, including all three Rameseses (just in time, too, because shortly afterwards the tomb’s ceiling collapsed and the bodies would have been unrecoverable if they hadn’t already been retrieved).

The fact that mummies had been recovered from a tomb 41 years before Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen was a surprise to me! This film did have its few glitches — like mentioning that the Rosetta Stone provided the clue to enable modern researchers to read hieroglyphics without explaining how it did that (it contained the same inscription in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics, a later and simpler form of Egyptian writing called hieratics, and classical Greek — and since classical Greek was still a known language, it provided the clues as to how to read the other two) — and some of the scenes with actors were a bit tacky, but overall it was fascinating and a lot of fun.