Around the World in Nine Days

by Sheri Boggs

One of the hallmarks of Riverfront Park's annual IMAX Film Festival is that it offers something for everyone (well, everyone except party poopers who get nauseous on rides or who don't like special effects). And this year's festival is no different. Ever wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro? Now's your chance. Like pandas? Got 'em. Ever think the adventures of Lewis and Clark would make a great movie? They do.

What is different about this year's festival is that instead of cramming a staggering number of films into a relatively small number of shows, the event planners have opted for five sure-fire crowd pleasers, with plenty of available showings. What's more, audience members will get to take part in deciding which films come back for an extended run at IMAX with the "Viewer's Choice Awards." After seeing the films, people can rate them and offer comments, all of which will be tallied later; the winner will be considered for a later booking. If deciding the fate of a five-story high film doesn't make you feel powerful, we don't know what will.

Although these films have never been seen before in the Spokane market, at least one of them might be familiar to local viewers. A non-IMAX version of Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, entitled The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, played first at the Met and then Newport Cinemas for a short run last winter. The IMAX version, narrated by Kevin Spacey, is slightly shorter, but is otherwise fairly similar to the regular cinematic release.

The story of Ernest Shackleton's expedition begins with the remarkably prescient advertisement he placed in London newspapers in 1914: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success." The British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, as it was called, was two days into its navigation of the Antarctic coastline when their ship The Endurance was caught in pack ice, stranding the 28 men on board. The bitter cold and long months of complete darkness were the least of their worries as they rationed food, hoped for escape and watched their ship get crushed beyond repair by the shifting ice.

Amazingly, all 28 men survived, but even the story of their escape is fraught with long stretches of near-hopelessness and moments of enormous peril. To convey what Shackleton and his men went through, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure features three of the world's most-skilled mountaineers -- Reinhold Messner, Stephen Venables and Conrad Anker, who retraced the expedition's route across the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia Island, the last daunting leg of their journey towards rescue. The film also offers stunning images of Frank Hurley, the expedition's official photographer. His ghostly stills and 35mm motion-picture footage of the caught ship and her men bring a sense of immediacy and historic context to the gorgeous cinematography of present-day IMAX filmmaking.

A much milder journey, both in terms of climate and intensity, is to be had in Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa, which was directed by Everest's David Brashears. At 19,340 feet above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain in the world, with five distinct climate zones, including rainforest, moor and glacier. The filmmakers tell us that 15,000 climbers attempt to ascend "Kili" each year, but that only half of those ever make it to the summit, derailed by altitude sickness, poor health or even poorer planning.

In Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa, Brashears assembles a small group of six climbers, ages 12-64, and follows their journey both as a witness and by allowing the climbers to tell their own stories along the way. The group includes a 12-year-old girl from Massachusetts, a 13-year-old Tanzanian boy who has seen Kilimanjaro every day of his life, a 64-year-old writer and historian, a 23-year-old Danish model and artist, a 55-year-old British geophysicist and volcano expert, along with the group's guide, a man from the Chagga tribe at the base of the mountain. As they get to know one another, they form a support system for the tribulations that will come later in the trip, including wistful thoughts of home, exhaustion and altitude sickness. They also learn about Kilimanjaro's strange environment, how some plants evolved to withstand the heat of African days and the chill of mountain nights, and even muse about a few of the bones they find -- elephant and leopard -- and how these animals got so high up on the mountain.

One of the biggest chal-lenges in making Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West lay in finding even a few miles of their historic trail that did not bear some visible trace of modernity: railroad tracks, power lines and, of course, cars. In some cases, the filmmakers had to fudge with digital wizardry, but for the most part, Lewis and Clark effectively captures a sense of what that legendary overland trip must have been like.

The trip found its genesis in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and third president Thomas Jefferson's fascination with the existence of a "Northwest Passage," a vast waterway believed to link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Embarking on a journey to find this passage, Lewis and Clark covered 8,000 miles of completely unfamiliar terrain over two years (1804-1806), encountering myriad Indian tribes, bison, grizzlies, subzero temperatures, inclement weather and rivers like none they had ever seen before. Helping them most of the way with a baby in tow was the young Shoshone girl Sacagawea, who is credited more than once for saving provisions, lives or both.

The filmmakers relied on the work of Stephen Ambrose (author of Undaunted Courage) and Gary Moulton (editor of an unabridged version of The Journals of Lewis and Clark) for the film, which gets points for both the adventure (taking a handmade canoe through whitewater rapids, traversing the Bitterroot Mountains in winter) and the research (collecting plant samples, recording impressions of American Indian life).

Of course there are kanga-roos and koalas in Australia: Land Beyond Time, but happily, so much more. I mean don't get us wrong, we like our cute critters as much as the next person, but you can get your fill of them on the Discovery Channel. Nope, if we're going to Australia, we want monsoons, red earth deserts, snakes, the mighty Uluru (Ayers Rock) and lots of breeding pelicans. Happily, Australia does not disappoint. Filmed over two years in the outback, the crew managed to capture the region during both drought and flood, the latter yielding some unexpected surprises. Torrential rains in the north caused flooding that eventually reached the arid interior while the IMAX crew was filming. The normally dry Lake Eyre, which only fills on average twice a century, filled with enough water to attract not just a colony but millions of pelicans, a strange sight so far from the coast.

Audiences also learn about Australia's dramatic geological past as a part of the continent Gondwana, which began to break up 40 million years ago, with Australia drifting north and the remaining continent, Antarctica, settling at the South Pole. As the largest island in the world, its plants and animals are, in evolutionary terms, remarkable.

The story behind China: The Panda Adventure is as fascinating as the enormous black-and-white animals with the seemingly endless lust for fresh bamboo. In 1936, New York socialite Ruth Harkness (played by Maria Bello) learns that her adventurer husband has died of fever in China. Traveling to Shanghai to retrieve his ashes, Ruth is compelled to finish his quest to find and research the Great Panda, which by 1936 was one of the few animals in the world that had never been held in captivity. Accompanied by her husband's former guide (Xia Yu), Ruth makes the daring trek inland, competing with an English hunter and sometime-partner of her late husband, who tries to persuade her to drop the search and let him take a crack at it instead. In addition to sabotage from a rival adventurer, Ruth's journey is hampered by dangerous river travel, the threat of warlords and bandits, and even the desertion of her porters.

The IMAX medium effectively delivers both the size and scope of Harkness's undertaking, from the striking silhouette of the junks in the harbor to the incredibly dense forests of the Yangtze Valley. Real pandas from the Wolong Reserve star in the film, which was shot largely on location, complete with period costumes and local extras.

Along with the five films offered by the festival, IMAX will continue to run their current roster of films -- Ultimate X, IMAX Space Station and Alaska for the first four hours of each festival day.

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