The horrific events of 9/11 altered many people's views of the Arab world. In the blink of an eye, a large portion of the U.S. population dismissed the historical significance of the Muslim culture and the achievements that helped define it, and dwelt instead on the headline-grabbing extremism that in reality consumes only a minute portion of the Arab people. Sadly, a land of rugged desert beauty, rich traditions, and sophisticated cities became overshadowed by a cloud of suspicion and a fear of impending terrorist attacks. 'Arabia 3D' strives to refocus our gaze by celebrating the resolve and resilience that spawned two golden ages and helped shape modern civilization. Greg MacGillivray's IMAX film also does what the large-format genre does best - showcase the natural splendor of a faraway land and immerse us in its unique environment.
'Arabia 3D' isn't the most dazzling IMAX presentation I've seen, but the 3D effects are so stunning, they overshadow the movie's shortcomings. With methodical grace, the film travels back in time and recreates life in ancient Arabia, taking us to the rock city of Petra, saluting the nomadic Bedouin people, and allowing us to admire the elegant, indigenous Arabian horses. We learn how the Arabs developed algebra and revolutionized physics, and how oil replaced frankincense as the region's ticket to prosperity. 'Arabia' also depicts how the culture champions education, especially among women, and balances tradition and progress, enabling the country to hang on to core values while pursuing a strong foothold in modern global society.
Scenes of scope and grandeur are juxtaposed with more intimate slices of Arabian life, culminating in a fascinating sequence on The Hajj, the age-old pilgrimmage in which thousands of Muslims fulfill their destiny by traveling to Mecca to worship their god, Allah. We also go underwater to examine the Arabian Sea's coral reef and the colorful fish who reside there - another impressive 3D segment.
Helen Mirren narrates the film, bringing a sophistication and gravity to the proceedings, but even her poised delivery can't infuse 'Arabia' with any real sense of excitement. There's earnestness aplenty on display (quotes like "Once you make friends with an Arab, you are friends for life" abound), but the presentation remains maddeningly sterile. The movie runs only 46 minutes, but it feels longer, often lumbering along instead of galloping like the region's eponymous stallions.
Moments of wonder, however - many of which come courtesy of 3D - keep 'Arabia' on track, and the viewer assuredly comes away with a greater appreciation of and respect for the country and its people. As a teaching tool, 'Arabia' does its job well, and armchair travelers will certainly revel in the considerable beauty on display. September 11th may have distanced us from the Arab people, but this film, in its own small way, succeeds in narrowing that gap.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Arabia 3D' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. Video codec is 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Upon insertion of the disc, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it. The film can be viewed in either 3D or 2D (you can make the selection from the main menu), so it is playable on any standard machine.
It's always a shame when transfers don't quite live up to expectations, and sadly, that's the case with this 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 effort. Don't get me wrong; there's superior clarity, terrific contrast, and vibrant color galore bathing the image, and the 3D effects are some of the best I've seen in the home environment. Yet this transfer falls just short of the five-star brilliance I anticipated. At times, the picture looks over-pushed, adopting an artificial sheen that robs the rocky, sandy landscapes of their natural ruggedness. A bit of shimmering also afflicts the metropolis shots, as building facades fight to remain stable, and whites often appear blindingly bright. Maybe the frequent interspersing of graphics, all of which are razor sharp and lushly colorful, contributes to the transfer's artificial feel, but I craved more film-like texture and warmth.
Black levels brim with inky depth, fleshtones look natural, and the native garb sports nicely saturated hues. The most impressive visuals occur during The Hajj sequence, where thousands upon thousands of Muslim pilgrims gather to worship their god. The clarity here is quite impressive, allowing us to see individual faces in massive group shots encompassing hundreds of figures.
The 3D effects are equally spectacular. The animated maps leap off the screen; fish in the coral reef sequence swim right in front of our eyes; and a camel head protrudes into the room. Certain scenic vistas and establishing shots also possess striking dimension, enhancing the you-are-there atmosphere for which films like this are known. The 3D imaging isn't constant - many scenes adopt a flat look - but when it appears, it's usually dazzling.
All in all, this is an excellent, often breathtaking, effort, but the nagging imperfections drag it down just a tad. Still, anyone seeking an immersive travelogue and a great disc to introduce friends and family to 3D won't go wrong with this high quality presentation.
'Arabia' sports a high-powered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that features plenty of solid surround effects. Steve Wood's atmospheric music score makes excellent use of all five channels, and the result is a wide, enveloping soundscape that adds apprpriate exotic flavor to the visuals. Fine dynamic range manages all the highs and lows, and accents, like the flapping of bird wings, the unfurling of a map, and the rumble of galloping horse hooves, all sport a pleasing crispness.
Stereo separation across the front speakers is also quite good, especially during the brief sandstorm, and the mellifluous tones of narrator Helen Mirren are well prioritized and always easy to understand, thanks to her impeccable diction. No distortion or surface noise creep into the presentation, making this track a pleasure to listen to from start to finish.
A couple of extras spruce up this 3D release.
'Arabia 3D' sports some of the most stunning 3D images I've yet seen in the home environment. It also showcases the rugged Arabian landscapes, glistening cities, and historical structures with a keen eye, making this IMAX film a fascinating journey into a mysterious and often misunderstood culture. Excellent video, top-notch audio, and a few supplements enhance the trip. If you're looking for a disc to show off your new 3D set-up, this one fills the bill and is definitely worth a look.