'The Greatest Places'

Staff WriterJanuary 27, 2004 

[Originally published Nov. 16, 2002]

"Location, location, location!" That mantra may be the province of real estate agents, but it could just as well serve as the official IMAX sales pitch.

Consider the beginning of "Mysteries of Egypt." An aerial shot exposes an impossibly panoramic view that fills every inch of the giant IMAX screen. The mighty Nile River surges below, bordered on both sides by rugged, rocky mountains. As the camera swoops and soars over the world's longest river, we swoop and soar with it. When the camera, hurtling forward, momentarily tilts, it's enough to induce a heart-stopping sense of vertigo. And just for a second, we forget that we're sitting in a movie theater in Raleigh.

We are there.

Or rather, the Nile is here. Most of us will never get to Egypt in our lifetimes, and even if we did, we wouldn't see it from this thrilling vantage point. The IMAX technology is ideally suited to bringing such far-flung locations to us. "Mysteries of Egypt" delivers in a big, visceral way.

So does "The Greatest Places," the other film that Exploris has chosen to open the Triangle's first IMAX theater. Both films will stay at Exploris for several months after tonight's grand opening celebration, giving you plenty of time to immerse yourself in the Land of the Pharaohs, or the seven geographical wonders surveyed in "The Greatest Places."

"Mysteries of Egypt," produced by National Geographic, is the more instructional of the two films. It hops from topic to topic a bit carelessly, and the information it conveys is elementary stuff. The dramatizations of archaeologist Howard Carter's search for King Tutankhamen's tomb, and the re-enactments of certain aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization, may strike adults as cheesy.

But schoolchildren who have gazed with wonder at pictures of the pyramids in books will delight at seeing them on such a majestic scale. And kids who have been fascinated by the story of King Tut will be enthralled by the film's depiction of mummification and the discovery of the treasures in Tut's tomb.

Our tour through the Egyptian empire, with its magnificent art and architecture, is guided by Omar Sharif, the 69-year-old native of Egypt and star of "Doctor Zhivago," "Lawrence of Arabia" and other movies. Sharif's urbane manner lends the film gravity and elegance, and the young actress Kate Maberly ("The Secret Garden"), who plays his curious granddaughter, is likable and charming. She peppers him with questions about mummies and curses, and while this narrative strategy isn't particularly imaginative, the film's visual grandeur is never less than breathtaking.

The same could be said for "The Greatest Places," a travelogue narrated by actor Avery Brooks that drops educational tidbits as it whisks us from one stunning location to the next. Essentially a glorified nature program with an ecological message, "The Greatest Places" lacks the breadth to fully explore each of the geographical wonders it visits, but it's safe to say that viewers young and old will be captivated by the vivid imagery.

We begin in Madagascar, the island off the eastern coast of Africa that is home to a remarkable variety of animal life. After a look at lemurs and a close-up of a chameleon's projectile tongue snaring an insect, the film moves to the Chang Tang Plateau in Tibet, where the temperature can drop 80 degrees over the course of a day. This sequence features a colorful ceremony that includes musicians playing what sounds like the Tibetan version of Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz."

From there we journey down the Amazon, and when the camera hits a branch from one of the ubiquitous trees that curl over the river, you may find yourself ducking. The next stop is regrettably short -- we get only a brief glimpse of the Iguazu Falls in Brazil.

The falls' rushing water provides an exhilarating thrill before we dry off in the Namib Desert in southwest Africa among the adders, scorpions and enormous sand dunes. Then it's on to Greenland, whose gargantuan icebergs are truly otherworldly, and finally Botswana, whose Okavango River Delta teems with animal life -- elephants, hippos, giraffes, wild dogs, birds of all stripes.

The film's amazing photography captures the vibrancy of each region in all of its glory, and the evocative, multicultural score adds immeasurably to the overall mood.

There's little in "The Greatest Places" that you wouldn't see on the Discovery Channel, and there's little in "Mysteries of Egypt" that you wouldn't learn by opening a rudimentary book on the subject. But the one-two punch of the IMAX experience -- powerful, crystal-clear sound and crisp, eye-popping image -- engages us in a way that no other medium can. If these films entertain, they will have done their job. If they also teach and inspire, all the better.

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