REVIEW: To the Arctic 3D Highlights Enviro-Woes, Polar Bear Cubs in Dazzling IMAX
Before IMAX became a way to boost action sequences — Tom Cruise dangling from the tallest building in the world, the Joker's gang rappelling down from a Gotham City high-rise to rob a bank — the outsized format was primarily the domain of nature films like To the Arctic 3D, which aim to dazzle with large-scale shots of mountains and dolphins and Australia and other impressive-looking things. Forty minutes long and narrated by Meryl Streep, To the Arctic uses spoonfuls of cuteness — featuring walruses and caribou, though polar bears are its primary animal stars — to make its fairly grim environmental message go down a little easier.
Directed by Greg MacGillivray, an old hand at IMAX docs, To the Arctic tries to balance out its underlying sense of global warming alarm with spectacular imagery and footage of the far north ecosystem at work. Of course, even when it comes to the most roly poly of polar bear cubs, life at the top of the world isn't easy, and while the film discreetly leaves the majority of the process of hunting and gobbling down seals off screen, it does include some potentially troubling sequences involving the food sources the male bears turn to when desperate. Polar bears aren't easy to film — a segment about how would-be cinematographers camouflage remote-controlled cameras in order to get closer shots of the animals shows one bear breaking a device like an enraged celebrity attacking a paparazzo. So when the filmmakers find a family of bears and are able to stick with them for several days, they end up catching a chase across the ice.
It's a mother polar bear and her two cubs who are the heart of To the Arctic, the trio traveling across the diminishing sea ice as the mother searches for food for her offspring in the lean summer months when hunting is more difficult. Survival isn't a certainty — earlier footage shows a mother swimming for nine days and hundreds of miles in search of meat, her cub not surviving the journey. But in the case of these bears, their most dangerous enemy turns out to be males of their own species, who will eat cubs when they can't find seals to nosh on. The mother anxiously herds her children across the ice floes, always on the lookout for other bears, though despite her caution one finds them and tries to track them down. (Parents with children and sensitive stoners planning on seeing the film can rest assured there are no scenes of violent polar bear cannibalism.)
To the Arctic flutters from place to place, peering in at some Inuit hunters and researchers who dive beneath the ice, then traveling with a pair of scientists tracking caribou migrations before pausing to watch walruses loll in the sun and then jumping to a ship departing from Svalbard. The only thematic ties beyond a shared region are the environmental threats being posed by global warming, which is making it harder to polar bears and walruses to hunt and is wreaking havoc on the caribou migration patterns.
The film is marked by a few jarring stylistic touches, like a score that wavers between dramatic instrumentals and Paul McCartney songs ("Mr. Bellamy," "I'm Carrying" and "Little Willow") and opening credits that explode into shards of ice that fly at you — narrated by Meryl Streep BOOM! Streep offers her voiceover with nary a sly twinkle, even when delivering lines about the "frisky dance of the northern lights" or urging that "we can help keep the Arctic white." But it's the visuals you're here to see, and they look great on the massive screen in three dimensions, especially in helicopter shots that whirl past waterfalls cascading off of glaciers or travel over the fantastic tundra like there's an army of orcs to be discovered just over the next bluff. 3-D and IMAX may no longer be new, but in moments like those, they can still summon a sense of awe.