Friday 12 April 2019

"Amazon Adventure" (Guardian 12/04/19)

Amazon Adventure ***
Dir: Mike Slee. With: Calum Finlay, Bege Muniz, Ed Birch, Billy Postlethwaite. 46 minutes. Cert: PG

In places, this satisfying IMAX edutainment brings forth happy memories of James Gray’s excellent TheLost City of Z. It’s a tribute to another overshadowed historical figure, that of Henry Bates, the Leicester-born amateur scientist – and Alfred Wallace associate – who struck out for the Amazon in 1848 charged with collecting insects at threepence per bug, and in so doing indirectly gathered the evolutionary proofs that backed up Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. What Bates (embodied here by an engaging Calum Finlay) observed in these parts – when he wasn’t bleary-eyed from malaria – were “leaves that could fly, bird droppings that could walk”: i.e. those craftier critters whose predator-bamboozling camouflage was so well developed they hadn’t previously been spotted. Here’s what scientists talk about when they talk about “Batesian mimicry”.

Director Mike Slee (who enjoyed a big IMAX hit with the Judi Dench-narrated Bugs! back in 2003) and screenwriters Carl Knutson and Wendy MacKeigan recognise that Bates’s fieldwork might itself pass usefully for Saturday-morning matinee fare. Verdant Brazilian location work plunges us from the opening moments into a fully immersive jungle environment, complete with such adventure-movie staples as shipwrecks, hungry leopards and mischievous monkeys. Yet this team also find smart and invariably visual means of illustrating their human subject’s breakthroughs. When a chain of stereoscopic butterflies flutters across our field of vision, each insect bearing similar yet subtly distinct markings, it’s the 3D equivalent of a lightbulb moment: you feel you could literally grasp Bates’s working.

Possibly the first-person narration holds a little too dear to the earnest tone of this wonderboy’s letters home; the youngsters around me at the press screening grew restless towards the end of an otherwise brisk 40 minutes, as the cuddly animals receded from view, and Bates returns to civilisation to prove Darwin right in the face of a harrumphing popular press. Yet the film sets about its task in the same spirit of wide-eyed wonder as its subject, using movie art to bolster its science, and thereby retooling the IMAX screen to serve as a high-powered microscope. Under Slee’s direction, even the teensiest creepy-crawlies find themselves noted and taxonomized; encouraging to see a format that generally sets audiences to non-specific gawping attempting once again to focus and refine our gaze.

Amazon Adventure is now playing at IMAX cinemas in London and Glasgow. 

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