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Island of the Sharks

Most sharks per cubic meter

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Omnimax documentary

Directed by Howard Hall

Music by Alan Williams

At the Museum of Science until September 30

Making an Omnimax film involves taking care of two aspects: Omnimax (the technical challenges and the visual creativity involved in capturing images for a five-story-tall screen) and film (making sure that the visuals combine into a coherent and entertaining story). Island of the Sharks is a remarkable achievement on the visual front, providing some sequences which feel hyper-real, out of this world, and literally larger than life. Such is the power of the visuals, that they frequently compensate for the lamentable lack of the structure and story.

Three hundred miles west from the coast of Costa Rica, lies Cocos, the largest uninhabited island in the world. It’s a large and steep rocky outcropping (the pinnacle of a long-extinct volcano), covered with lush greenery; this island was used by Robert Lewis Stevenson as an inspiration for his Treasure Island, and by Michael Crichton for his Jurassic Park. In reality, of course, there’s neither treasure nor dinosaurs on Cocos; the real treasure and the real predators are under the sea. In these waters there are more sharks per cubic meter than anywhere else in the world.

And into these waters, the director Howard Hall takes his Omnimax camera, after building it a special housing to withstand the water pressure at the depth of up to 130 feet. Hall is no novice to this kind of work: he served as a director of photography on an Oscar-nominated The Living Sea (also Omnimax). That movie was pure eye candy, a collage of beautiful images not connected by any kind of story. Island of the Sharks serves even more astounding images, and is as weak in the story department.

Not to belittle Hall’s achievements and visual inventiveness in selecting the 40 minutes of footage out of more than 350 hours filmed. He captures the huge flocks of hammerhead sharks (for my money, some of the most weirdly-shaped animals on the face of this planet), slowly floating in the shallow water. There’s an amazing bit of time-lapse photography of starfish, showing them to possess a great deal of agility and personality.

One sequence in particular stands out. It’s a pulse-pounding hunt, with several kinds of predators (among them, seals and sharks) attacking a huge school of fish. Trapping the prey just under the water surface, the predators start swimming around in ever-tightening circles. As a result, the fish, trying to escape, also start circling around -- and this results in a tremendous rapidly-spinning hemisphere, resembling a fish twister. The sharks dive through this formation to grab as many fish as they want.

This sequence is utterly unbelievable, perhaps even more so because we know it’s perfectly true -- it just looks entirely outlandish, wondrous and horrific at the same time. Some of the shots are even made from inside this spinning globule, by lowering the divers with the film camera directly into the center of the hunt. The impact of this sequence is increased even further by excellent musical score (Alan Williams), which, in general, adds a lot of life to the whole movie.

The hunt segment is amazing; it’s equally amazing the second time around, although it points at a certain problem. Since the filmmakers decided to use the footage of two very similar hunts at two points in the movie, it feels like they are lacking in other exciting material and resort to padding the movie. I also wish I could learn something from this movie, but the movie makes few attempts to instruct the viewer.

Ultimately, Island of the Sharks works just about as well as any good, solid Omnimax documentary: it puts the viewer right there, in the middle of shark-infested waters, without even a danger of getting one’s feet wet. It succeeds as a travelogue, showing sights that most of us, probably, would never get a chance to see otherwise. If you aren’t satisfied with just looking, but also want to learn something, I suggest looking elsewhere.