Mixing science, education, storytelling and cutting-edge CGI, 'Sea Monsters' is a most unusual specimen of IMAX film. Aside from theatrical features that make the transition to the big-screen format, most IMAX "edutainment" efforts can be pretty dry and lacking a riveting narrative or, worse, are just endless travelogues set to cheesy muzak. 'Sea Monsters' manages to avoid such traps, telling a compelling tale while never failing to dazzle with its wonderful visuals.
Running only 42 minutes, 'Sea Monsters' (originally subtitled 'A Prehistoric Adventure' for its IMAX run, but here adopting the National Geographic label) isn't really a full-length feature, but it's just as daring as a big-budget Hollywood spectacle in attempting recreate a time in prehistory, some 80 million years ago, solely using computer-generated imagery. With only fossilized records to guide them, director Sean Phillips and his team have created a compact, well-structured and imaginative film about sea reptiles of the past, when vicious predators ruled the ocean depths. A variety of previously unheard-of species become fully realized, as we watch them hunt for food, for sport, and engage in evolutionary rituals as they evolve (and in some cases, become extinct).
The through-line of the story involves a race of long-necked reptile called dolichorhynchops, which are vaguely-dolphin-sized. The lead is Dolly, who we follow as she attempts to evade those out to eat her, and may soon eat her mother and brother, too. Like anything from Pixar, Dolly is wonderfully animated, so even if the fish don't talk here (or sing, for that matter), she becomes a full-fledged character. And as narrated by Liev Schrieber and scored by Peter Gabriel, 'Sea Monsters' is able to impart a wealth of evocative atmosphere and educational information as we follow Dolly on her surprisingly tension-packed journey.
Visually, 'Sea Monsters' elevates itself above the IMAX pack. Phillips doesn't sacrifice artistic ambition and aesthetic beauty for multiplex considerations. There are many stunning images and sequences in 'Sea Monsters,' particularly a wonderful time-lapse evolution of Dolly over 80 million years (as she, unfortunately, dissolves into the sediment) that incorporates transformative natural images of glaciers, mountains and plant life. It's typical of the passion and attention to detail throughout 'Sea Monsters.'
Unfortunately, given its short runtime, 'Sea Monsters' remains somewhat unsatisfying. It's ultimately not long enough to fully engage our emotions as would a feature-length film. The narration (though well-done by Schrieber) also sounds a bit like a TV nature special, and the sameness of the aural approach can grow tiresome. But 'Sea Monsters' imparts enough fascinating insight on a time long before humans existed to make it a trip well worth taking. And for the IMAX genre, it's certainly a cut above.
National Geographic presents the computer-generated 'Sea Monsters' in a very slick 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Originally presented in IMAX (including select 3-D showings), the aspect ratio here has been composed at 1.78:1.
In most respects, 'Sea Monsters' looks great. The level of detail is often wonderful, with numerous moments of high-def excellence that easily rank this as a demo disc. The various sea life comes through with realistic textures for CGI, with "fintones" nice and textured. Colors are vivid, with wonderful deep sea blues and other underwater hues presented with great cleanliness. I was also impressed that the transfer has not been over-processed, so while sharp, there is no intrusive edge enhancement or whacked-out contrast. This is also a nice, clean encode with no compression artifacts, and I was surprised by the lack of posterization and noise. 'Sea Monsters' is a very strong effort from National Geographic.
'Sea Monsters' gets a standard English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track (640kbps). Typical of documentaries, this lacks the impact of a polished theatrical feature.
The surrounds have little to gnosh on. The location and recorded sounds are largely front-directed, so the score (by Peter Gabriel) is what enjoys the rear channels. It's the highlight of the mix, with a very lush and expansive tonality. Certainly, a high-res mix would have been superb, but Gabriel's work nevertheless elevates what we do get. Dynamics are otherwise fine, with the subwoofer again reserved primarily for the score elements. Spoken words do sound fairly intelligible, though some of the rougher passages still required me to boost the volume a tad. All in all, this is a fair mix saved by a great soundtrack.
Sadly, National Geographic has not provided any making-of material for 'Sea Monsters.' The supplemental package here is very slim.
'Sea Monsters' is a beautifully shot documentary, one teeming with fascinating sea life and the often incredible things they do. It does feel a bit slim, however, at 42 minutes, and IMAX fans will no doubt wish this could have been presented in 3-D as during its original theatrical run. This Blu-ray is strong, however, with nice video and audio. Supplements are wafer thin. All in all, a great rental, though the replay value is not high so only diehard sea lovers should probably invest in a purchase.