The Art of War

"The Great Barrier Reef" plunges us into an undersea world teeming with life edible to deadly, aggressive to shy, delicate to rugged. Some of the 1,500 species of fish and 400 types of coral boast riotous colors, often a warning to predators. The venomous puffer blows itself up and drifts like a balloon; the eel slithers back into a crevice. Others conceal themselves with such clever camouflage that we strain to see the animal right in front of us. Director of photography Mal Wolfe treats us to closeup scrutiny of this beautiful diversity, including clownfish, lobsters, manta rays, anemones, sea turtles and more.

Stretching more than 1,200 miles along the northeast coast and reaching more than 120 miles out to sea, Australia's Great Barrier Reef is, in fact, an intricate, complex and fragile ecosystem comprising more than 2,900 small reefs and islands. Appropriately, the film opens and closes featuring the Aborigines who maintained, for centuries, a healthy respect for and synergistic interaction with the reef's many microenvironments. Today, scientists strive to understand how some species' toxins protect them from nerve and muscle disorders. Tragically, destructive agents also intrude, from the Crown-of-Thorns starfish to insensitive humans.

Though at times weak on substantive content (after mentioning species' extraordinary immunities, the film provides only one example), "The Great Barrier Reef" does impart the splendid Imax experience, notably our immersion in this wondrous world. Still, sharks serve their stereotypical function, as though all encounters with the numerous shark species are traumatic (in more than 25 years of diving I've seen dozens with no incident). Scuba divers also will notice that Ron and Valerie Taylor, our surrogate explorers, fail to wear buoyancy compensators, a safety device wisely required by all professional diving associations. Still, "The Great Barrier Reef" showcases a breathtaking medley of indigenous corals, seaweed, mollusks, birds and turtles, and provides its own powerful antidote to winter blahs.

Now playing at the St. Louis Science Center.
-- Diane Carson

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