Amazon Adventure 3D documentary review: historical jungle expedition, for science

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Amazon Adventure 3D green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Stunning photography — perhaps the last time anyone will haul IMAX cameras into the Amazon — a bit of adventure, and a solid, simple, inspirational science lesson. Everything an IMAX doc should be.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a total science geek; love an IMAX flick
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Remember when “IMAX 3D” meant “45-minute doc at the science museum while wearing headgear so heavy it threatened to snap your neck”? I do! So I jumped at the chance to check out Amazon Adventure 3D, my first large-format nerdery documentary in absolutely forever. And I was not disappointed. I mean, you really cannot go wrong with these things, if you’re any kind of geek, and thankfully now the 3D apparatus is the same lightweight pseudo-sunglasses you wear for the latest Marvel punchup, so, *whew*. Because everything looks better in IMAX, and — as noted by director Mike Slee, who was at the British premiere I attended to introduce the film — this may be the last time anyone hauls IMAX cameras into the Amazon, since CGI is a thing now, and also where they shot this a few years ago has probably already been deforested. Last chance to see, kids! *sob*

The stunning photography here, by cinematographer Gerry Vasbenter, would be reason enough to check this out. It’s simply totally gorgeous, from sweeping views of the twists of the Amazon river and the grandeur of the jungle to small-scale closeups of bugs that look like sticks or leaves or, in one remarkable instance, a caterpillar that perfectly mimics a very lethal snake. In 3D! Genuinely unnerving.

Remember when “IMAX 3D” meant “45-minute doc at the science museum”? I do!

But there’s a science lesson in the offing, too, of course. Mimicry in the animal kingdom is what Amazon Adventure 3D is mostly concerned with; like, say, how one species of butterfly that isn’t poisonous to its prey mimics the wing colors and patterns of another species that is poisonous. This is the tale of 19th-century British naturalist Henry Walter Bates, whom I had never even heard of before(!), a contemporary and colleague of the co-stumblers-upon of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Bates and his pal Wallace headed to the Amazon in the 1840s to check out bugs; beetles were Bates’s passion. Bates ended up staying for 11 years, collecting tens of thousands of specimens of all kinds of insects in his quest to prove that species “changed over time,” an idea that scientists like Bates were grappling with but couldn’t quite yet demonstrate, and didn’t yet have a succinct word for. We have that word now: evolution. And Bates’s work ended up supplying the evidence needed to prove Darwin’s theory when he was being publicly derided after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Amazon Adventure Henry Walter Bates Calum Finlay
The real Bates, and actor Calum Finlay in this movie: some scarily spot-on casting.

There’s a bit of adventure with Bates, played by Calum Finlay, who has the fairly thankless actorly job of morphing from hale and hearty to too-skinny, malaria-wracked (before malaria had even been identified as a thing) near-castaway – -there’s a shipwreck! But he and his manservant-slash-local-bestie Tando (Begê Muniz) survive. (Wallace, played by Ed Birch [The Hurricane Heist, Their Finest] had gone home, the bastard.) It’s because of the shipwreck — no spoilers! — that Bates hits upon some fairly key realizations about the specimens he has collected and is attempting to salvage from the disaster. It’s action combining with inspiration in a way simple enough to kids to get … which is the totally vital and key takeaway of a movie like this one. It’s also low-key rousing: you never know from whence your most important discoveries are going to spring so, like, just embrace the chaos and trust that your instincts are taking you in the right direction.

Amazon Adventure 3D is now playing at the BFI IMAX in London, and opens on April 15th at the Cineworld IMAX at the Glasgow Science Centre. It is also playing at a few other science museums around the planet. See the film’s official site for more info.

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