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Alaskan Wildlife 101

A review of Alaska: Spirit of the Wild



Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (NR)
Houston Museum of Natural Science and Sarai Inc.

Documentaries catering science education may not be for everyone, but if you're up for some good ol' G-rated entertainment then Alaska: Spirit of the Wild is a good pick.

While Alaska is by no means the greatest IMAX documentary ever made, it does contain all of the quintessential elements that make IMAX films such an extraordinary medium for learning. From breathtaking views out of airplanes to majestic natural scenes and playful animal interactions, Alaska yields a powerful balance of wonder and explanation. The film lives up to the charge of connecting audiences to wildlife, with moments of awe and empathy relayed through scenes of swimming with sea lions, fishing with brown bears, and waking up with sleepy polar bears.

The footage compiled by director George Casey is impressive, providing the audience close encounters with all of the major wildlife that still roams in Alaska's pristine environs: caribou, elk, bison, musk oxen, wolves, fox, moose, beavers, and brown, black and polar bears. Moments starring Alaska's wildlife captured on film are what make Alaska so successful. Casey grabs your attention with playful displays and coats the scenes with tidbits of appetizing trivia. For example, a gigantic black bear gleefully splashes in one of Alaska's 3 million lakes. And did you know that a polar bear can smell a seal up to 20 miles away or that humpback whales hunt cooperatively with one whale singing a ritual song?

Casey attempts to present the rugged spirit of the lives of Alaska's human inhabitants -- old and new -- and this is where Alaska loses some of its finesse. While viewers will be reminded that First Nations people crossed the Bering land bridge following game (represented by Casey as fur- and antler-clad tribesmen chasing a herd of caribou with spears), the rich history of people in Alaska receives far less time than the natural splendor. Casey features a brief sequence of modern Inupiaq people preparing for a whale hunt and the hauling in of the whale with pulleys. The Inupiaq, we learn, believe that if they are living harmoniously with the world, then a whale will give itself to them for the continued nourishment of their people through the harsh winter months. The scenes of the cold-weather-adapted Inupiaq give way first to a montage of old photographs of the predominately white Euro-Americans who braved Alaska's hazards in hopes of striking it rich in the Klondike and then to footage of modern-day Anchorage at the start of the Iditarod dogsled race. These three selections comprise all we are told of Alaska's diverse peoples and heritage, perhaps the best one can expect from a 40-minute film, but it's frustrating nonetheless.

Yet even for those of us with Pikes Peak in our back yard, Alaska serves as a reminder that the human spirit is nurtured by experiences of the wild. As naturalist John Muir once wrote, "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world." Casey's Alaska shares that sentiment and brings viewers one step closer to experiencing the marvels of a land still very much untouched by human activity. Deep down inside, as the film's narrator Charlton Heston gently says in the closing sequence, "We all want to know that such a place still exists."

-- Michael Beckel

Cinemark IMAX

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