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Save the Coral Reef!

New IMAX Adventure Film is Just Propaganda

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Coral Reef Adventure Directed by Greg MacGillivray

Underwater Cinematography by Howard Hall

Narrated by Liam Neeson

At the Museum of Science OmniMax Theater

Take an OmniMax film camera, plop it underwater in the middle of a coral reef, and let it run for forty minutes, filming all the sea creatures that drift by: honestly, I’d be happy. As a matter of fact, Into the Deep, which does exactly that, is currently playing at the New England Aquarium IMAX, and it’s in 3D, and it’s perfectly transporting. Coral Reef Adventure tries to do more, and sometimes more is decidedly less.

Most telling is a scene that plays like a distillment of giant-screen documentary clichÉs. A pair of divers are looking for sharks (the presence of the top-of-the-food-chain animals signifies the overall health of the coral reef biosystem), and they come across this dark foreboding cave, and they float by very carefully, while the narrator expresses concerns about what dangers might be lurking in this cave. Too bad I wasn’t there to tell these two divers: what is lurking in this cave is the OmniMax camera operator, because this entire sequence is shot from inside the cave, the mouth of it framing the action.

And thus, instantly, what is supposed to be a documentary film -- something that should be interesting, first and foremost, in truth -- becomes a much lesser species, a mere collection of cool images, not above faking and recreating events in its quest to manipulate audience.

Admittedly, the cause in this case is perfectly noble: the film works overtime to elucidate the dangers faced by the coral reefs, (10 percent of which died during the last four years, destroyed by the effects of overfishing, pollution, logging, etc.,) but the means range from suspect to ludicrous. The whole story pretends to be about this native islander from Fiji trying to find out why the local coral reefs are dying. So he immediately consults world’s top experts on the topic, who send an expedition armed with high-speed boats, rebreathers, an OmniMax camera, a seaplane and a helicopter, etc., and this whole armada spends weeks in the South Pacific, exploring the reefs to their hearts’ content, filming mostly bright colorful healthy reefs, because -- admit it -- this is what the audience came to see.

All the while, the narration is either feeding you statistics (for a quiz next period?), or going for the touchy-feely (the most egregious moment: a mention that reefs really “belong to our children” is accompanied by a saccharine shot of a group of carefully groomed, adorably beaming moppets, and a similar shot, with different moppets, is used again in five minutes). The pathos is milked from anything within reach: even when the celebrated underwater cinematographer Howard Hall gets a severe case of bends and has to spend some time in a decompression chamber, there is a shot of him, made from inside the chamber, with the camera moving in to focus on his face. There are many reasons why you can’t put an OmniMax camera inside a deco chamber (nothing metallic is allowed, and there is no space for the camera, let alone for the operator, and there is no way it could move, etc.), so the shot is fake, and I really felt for Hall’s predicament (who, for the record, did get better and was back underwater in a month) until this shot, but this moment made me feel shamelessly manipulated.

The only aspects of the movie that do not feel fake are a few cute things here and there: one diver playing with a highly venomous water snake; a CG crossfade from a map to a stunning ocean vista; and, in my favorite scene, a diver letting two cleaner shrimp into her mouth to probe between her teeth.

Frankly speaking, it is hard to think of a commercially viable way to tell the the downbeat story of the reefs’ terrible situation. A straightforward narrative would, quite likely, not sell many tickets, and just showing pretty pictures would ignore the issue. So Coral Reef Adventure makes a compromise between principles and profits, and, as a result, becomes a piece of propaganda, hardly the best genre for a documentary film.