Approximately 71 percent of our planet is blanketed by saltwater -- an expansive area teeming with life and amazing spectacles rarely captured on film. Filmmakers Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas (the creative minds behind 'Stomp' and 'Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey') splash viewers into a mere sliver of our 'Wild Ocean' to bear witness to one of these natural wonders that occurs "where Africa meets the sea."
Originally shot in 3-D specifically for IMAX screens, 'Wild Ocean' was filmed over the course of two winters and documents the phenomenon referred to as the "Sardine Run." From May through July, cold water currents push the annual migration of billions of sardines north along the shoreline of the Wild Coast of South Africa. The sardines are an invaluable part of the food chain -- being the main economic resource for local Kwazulu Natal fishermen and an important food source for a wide variety of marine species.
The most exciting part of this event is when the sardine shoals form what is called a "bait ball." These enormous spherical clusters are so dense that they actually look like oil slicks from aerial points of view, and appear as a singular mass beneath the surface. Bait balls invite common and bottle-nosed dolphins, sharks, cape fur seals, and even seabirds like penguins and black-tipped gannets to all join in on a massive feeding frenzy composed of the largest gathering of ocean predators in the world.
Like the majority of these IMAX features, 'Wild Ocean' is only about 40 minutes in length, but unlike previous entries such as 'Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs' and 'Dinosaurs Alive!,' 'Wild Ocean' doesn't dilute itself by covering too many things at once. Instead, Cresswell and McNicholas focus on one specific theme--The Sardine Run--and the impact it has on human and marine ecology. The end result is a much smoother and tighter presentation.
The main draw of any IMAX production is of course the stunning eye-candy, and the cinematography of 'Wild Ocean' is made even more beautiful in glorious high-definition. The film is packed with spectacular footage of black-tipped gannets dive-bombing from the air at 30mph and plunging like torpedoes into the water below, dolphin pods joining forces to form super-pods during the feast, as well as graceful humpback whales feeding on plankton nearby. The feeding frenzy is also so relaxing and extensive that it really helps the movie hold up well for repeat viewings.
'Wild Ocean' does conclude with an obligatory warning, mentioning that the sardine population is on the decline as a result of overfishing and global warming. Measures are being taken to hopefully prevent fish numbers from dwindling too low, but to put things in perspective, 12 percent of land is currently designated as protected areas, while only less than one-100th of 1 percent of the ocean has been set aside as nature preserves. Fortunately, the documentary doesn't dwell on this fact, and just lays everything on the table -- enabling us to marvel and appreciate the world we often take for granted.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc StatsImage Entertainment releases 'Wild Ocean' on a single-layered BD-25 Blu-ray Disc inside a standard blue keepcase. The disc boots up right to the menu, but once the film begins to play there is an environmental advertisement sponsored by Nokia. The U.S. version of this Blu-ray appears to be region-locked and therefore will only function properly in Region A compatible PlayStation 3 and standalone machines.
IMAX documentary transfers can often be hit-or-miss in my experience. Fortunately, the 1080p/VC-1 (1.78:1 aspect ratio) encode by Image Entertainment on this Blu-ray is one of the more impressive ones I've seen lately.
The film was recorded on 70mm stock for IMAX use and the presentation is flat out gorgeous. The footage on land has stunning clarity with tremendous depth. In one particular instance the camera pans up and over a waterfall and I even felt a hint of queasiness on my 46' screen, so you can imagine what it would have been like in IMAX theaters. The palette oozes with vibrancy, too, from the lush greenery along the coast exhibiting a 'LOST'-like freshness to the bright and colorful clothing of the natives reeling in their bounty. The scales of sardine catches showcase spectacular fine detail as they glisten under the midday sun and individual grains of sand can easily be counted on the beach. Skin tones also have a natural and textured appearance that is quite pleasing.
While the image does lose a tiny bit of its crispness when we head underwater, for the most part it's still an attractive sight to behold. Black levels are just as rich and deep as they are during the surface camerawork, and all sorts of minuscule oceanic debris can be seen floating in the currents. Sometimes curious dolphins will investigate the camera lens and the detail and dimensionality during these close-ups is fantastic.
The only noticeable issue I encountered is what looks like a slight application of edge enhancement, but it never truly becomes an annoyance. This minor nitpick aside, 'Wild Ocean' is a beauty.
Image Entertainment provides three lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks in English, French, and Spanish. Like many IMAX features, the lively instrumental music dominates here, but the African tribal beats spaciously fill the room and sound wonderful. The rear speakers contribute some score bleed, although occasional effects such as the squeals of dolphins can sound almost forced and manipulated. Similar to 'IMAX: Mystery of the Nile,' the narration by South African John Kani in this release is also too soft when stacked up against the music. I didn't miss anything he said, but I did have to make a conscious effort to focus on his dialogue. In the end, if this soundtrack had been balanced a little more evenly, there wouldn't be much to complain about.
The disc also includes an additional English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, however there are no subtitle options available.
Image Entertainment includes a few bonus supplements on this Blu-ray, and they're all identical to the ones found on the DVD release.
IMAX documentaries often barely scrape the surface of their vast subject matter within the allotted 40-minute runtime, but 'Wild Ocean' sticks to a single topic, creating one of the more the tighter IMAX originals to date. Although the gorgeous cinematography capturing the Sardine Run phenomenon looks incredible on Blu-ray, the lossless audio tracks do have slight balance issues, with the narration taking a backseat to the music. On that note, 'Wild Ocean' is definitely worth seeing, although it's probably best as a rental for casual viewers.