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It's pretty sad when I can say that all but one of my recent experiences with Imax films have come sitting on the couch in my home theater. It's not that I don't enjoy the Imax format or that there isn't a large format screen nearby, because in the greater Vancouver area there are no less the 4 venues capable of showing these films. I think it's related to the cost factor although really that's probably less of an excuse now then it was two or three years ago. In my neck of the woods Imax costs $10.00 for a 40 minute feature and quite frankly that's a bit expensive. That's what I was telling myself two years ago and I'm still using that excuse today even though the majority of first run 35mm theaters are now hovering on and above that price. What's even sadder is that I have a free pass to use and I decided to pass up the chance to see "Journey Into Amazing Caves" on the giant screen in favor of relaxing at home.

"Journey Into Amazing Caves" is the latest Imax feature from MacGillivray/Freeman Productions which is led by one of the format's pioneers Stephen Judson. Judson has made 9 large format films, including the ground breaking "Everest" and "Dolphins", which just so happen to be two of my personal favorite films from back in the day. This time Judson has taken his crew deep into the deserts of Arizona, the ice caves of Greenland and the underwater caves of Cancun, Mexico.

The film begins near the Grand Canyon, where the temperature can reach upwards of 125 degrees during the afternoon. It’s here we meet Nancy Aulenbach and Hazel Barton, two of the world's premier cavers. Nancy is a teaching assistant at an elementary school when she's not out searching through undiscovered caves, and Hazel is a biological expert who studies the samples she finds on her expeditions. Their reason for caving is to discover new bacteria that could eventually lead to cures for diseases and other sorts of ailments.  The technical term for this bacteria is "extremophiles" which is named after the remote locations where these bacterial cultures form.  They repel down the side of a huge cliff, looking for entrances to these wonderful and often sparsely explored caves.  After collecting a sample they kayak down a nearby river looking for other caves they can explore.

The second location they visit is vastly different from the first, as it's in the Arctic tundra of Greenland. They are joined by a French expert, who is trained to work and explore in the extreme cold.  They can't just go into the cave at any time, and they have to sit around and wait for a cold spell before it's safe enough to make the descent into the dark ice cavern. The objective of this mission is to obtain a sample of ice from as far down the cave as possible. Ice is not the most stable element by design, and the fact that the ice could crack at any moment will keep people on the edge of their seats. I know I was.

For the third and final stop on their trip, Hazel and Nancy travel to Cancun, Mexico and the tropical forests of the country. They traverse the area in a unique sort of off road vehicle that constantly breaks down. Once they find a suitable location, they prepare for their most dangerous expedition yet. An underwater cave that's barely lit and where a wrong turn could lead to a disaster of a catastrophic nature.

As is expected from a MacGillivray/Freeman Imax production the technical aspects of the film are downright stellar. Even more so to someone like myself who's biggest adventure in the outdoors was the occasional ski trip. The imagery captured by Brad Ohlund, Gordon Brown, Howard Hall and Wes Skiles is among the most impressive ever shown on the large format screen. There isn't a minute that passes by that doesn't contain some sort of ground breaking shot. I can only imagine the length of time it took to get these shots and I congratulate everyone involved with having the guts to risk their lives in order to allow others to be brought into these magnificent locations. The musical score by the Moody Blues is also quite good and provides a number of different types of pieces to accompany the on screen action. One noteworthy musical contribution is a haunting orchestral piece with choral type singing. It really fits in quite well with the stunning imagery. "Star Wars Episode One's" Liam Neeson provides the narration, and does a flawless job of keeping the audience well abreast of the more technical details of the exploration.

Greenland's Ice Caves
Imax is primarily an educational format, but it's best when the learning is mixed with a believable and fun story. After all, when learning isn't fun the impact it has is lessened. The subject matter contained in the film quite frankly normally wouldn't be at the top of my list of things I'd like to know, but this documentary did its job and made learning about caves fun. I know that "Journey into Amazing Caves" is successful, because after viewing the program. I took the movie trivia quiz and earned the grade of a "B" the first time through.  "Journey into Amazing Caves" works well as both an educational tool and an exciting way to pass 40 minutes. It's a fun, exciting and riveting look at an under-appreciated aspect of our natural world. Recommended.

The theatrical ratio for Imax presentations on the big screen is approximately 1.44:1, and being so close to the full-frame ratio of 1.33:1 this has caused most Imax DVD releases to be presented in that format. However Image Entertainment has recently started offering their Imax titles in both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame transfers on the same disc, and "Journey Into Amazing Caves" is no exception to this policy. This review covers the 1.85:1 anamorphic version of the film. Visuals are a big part of the Imax experience, and this disc has them looking downright amazing. Deciding where to begin has never been more difficult, as aside from a few minor issues this is a gorgeous transfer. The film is so sharp and finely detailed that it's like you have your own private window overlooking the action. Colors are well saturated, and show off the locations used throughout filming beautifully. The blues in the ice caves were some of the nicest shades of blue I've seen outside of photoshop, while the dusty browns and oranges of the Arizona desert prove that all browns don't need to look bland. The sheer number of different shades of green in the forests of Cancun is also quite impressive, especially considering that I've never really been an outdoor type of guy. There's nothing much to report in terms of problems with no noticeable print marks or scratches, only a slight amount of minor pixelation and one or two instances of edge enhancement. I did notice some grain in a few shots but given the difficult nature of filming in those remote locations this might be considered a trade off for the imagery.  Image Entertainment really does a splendid job of bringing this film to the home viewers with such a high quality video transfer.

The Imax format means big picture and big sound, and this disc doesn't disappoint in either area. Image Entertainment presents "Journey into Amazing Caves" with a handful of audio options. The audio options you can choose from depend on which video option you select. The widescreen version offers up English Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS mixes, while the Full-Frame presentation gives the viewer a choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes in English, French and Spanish. The DTS mix is not available with the full-frame option.  Imax discs like "Destiny in Space", "Mission to Mir" and "Super Speedway" have often been considered demo worthy material, and while "Journey into Amazing Caves" doesn't quite reach the same level, it's still backed by a strong audio mix. To begin with, the elements present in the mix are all very high quality, and as such lend themselves nicely to this mix. The dialogue and narration are clearly heard at all times, standing out against the occasional odd all out assault of the sound effects or the musical score. The musical score, featuring new music from the Moody Blues sounds excellent, and really fills the room with it's rich presence. In the I can't believe how cool that sounds section of this disc, we have a couple of scenes involving kayaking and ice climbing, that sound as good as anything I've ever heard on DVD. Surround speaker usage is frequent and often unforgiving, and the same goes for the LFE channel.  In the age old DD vs. DTS battle, the DTS track comes out the clear winner as it features deeper and more sustained bass as well as a warmer more enveloping surround sound presence. However, regardless of the mix you select, you'll be entertained by this film's audio.

Recent Imax releases have been split between Warner and Image Entertainment, with each company having different ideas on what should be included as bonus material. The former has included simple featurettes, in the five to ten minute range, while the latter has included extensive “making of” documentaries and other quality special features.

The major special feature included here is a 40 minute look at the making of "Journey Into Amazing Caves". Running for the same length as the main feature, this is an excellent behind the scenes documentary.  Made up of a mixture of on-location and interview footage, we learn about all the technical and physical obstacles the crew went through. In Arizona the crew braved extreme heat, exhaustion and massive cliffs to film the scientists at work. This is nothing, however, to the ice caves in Greenland, where everything had to be lowered into the cave on one single rope.  From a film making standpoint the most impressive technical feat in this film is the underwater exploration sequence. Given the small dark caverns of the cave and that Imax cameras can only hold three minutes of film at any one time, the fact that the shots seemed so seamless is damn impressive. Other obstacles the production had to overcome include rain storms, large animals and dangerous terrain. The interviews are also informative giving the viewer insight into the motivation and thought process utilized by the film makers and the film stars.  Overall this is a great companion piece for the main feature, and well worth the time investment.

For those of you who want to learn more about caves, "Caves Books" provides a text list of suitable reading material for both adults and children. This is just a simple list of a few books that you could pick up at your local library or bookstore.

Since Imax is an educational format, there's a good chance that someone might use "Journey Into Amazing Caves" as an educational program in the class room, and for those teachers the disc includes a 10 question multiple choice trivia quiz. Be sure to pay attention throughout the film to find the answers to these questions. They are fairly easy and I got 8 out of 10 correct on the first try. If you get all ten correct then you are presented with a Bonus video which is a short (5 min) featurette.

Also included are the trailers for other MacGillivray/Freeman Imax titles "Dolphins", "The Magic of Flight", "The Living Sea", "The Discoverers" and "Storm Chasers" as well as a director biography.

Mexican underwater caves
"Journey into Amazing Caves" is an excellent film in all respects. It works on so many levels, from educating viewers about some of the caves present on our earth, to the downright amazing photography. It's fun to follow Hazel and Nancy, as their passion for their job is unrivaled. Director Stephen Judson has once again come up with a complete winner.  Image Entertainment's DVD offers excellent audio and video quality, and a "Making Of" documentary that's almost as good as the film itself. There's no reason not to check out this DVD, and if you have a chance to see this one on the big screen please don't make the same mistake I did. Highly Recommended