Friday, March 21, 2008

Grand Canyon Adventure: Not so grand

Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk (2008)
Three stars (out of five). Rating: Suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.21.08

When director of photography Brad Ohlund gave a slide chat prior to Tuesday's preview screening of Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk — an engaging little speech that, alas, regular movie patrons won't be able to experience — he rather defensively admitted that the film might be perceived as "a little preachy."
Navigating the Colorado River rapids would be difficult enough under ordinary
circumstances, but it's even harder while trying to record the action with a
massive IMAX 3D camera, which must be fastened to the raft and protected
from unnecessary damage. People are only a secondary consideration...


Although graced with the same stunning cinematography that we've come to expect from director Greg MacGillivray's IMAX documentaries — Everest and Adventures in Wild California topping his impressive résumé — his earlier films possessed something conspicuously lacking in Grand Canyon Adventure: a cohesive narrative.

This new film is preachy; at times, the on-camera narrators sound like scolding aunts. But that would be more forgivable if the movie fulfilled the mandate recited by Ohlund: that MacGillivray films are designed to entertain, educate and inspire ... in that order. Grand Canyon Adventure educates, after a fashion, but it certainly doesn't inspire, and it rarely entertains.

Closing-credit admonitions to conserve water by sweeping driveways and purchasing low-flow toilets and shower heads merely reinforce the impression of having sat through a rather uninspiring junior high school public-service film.

And that's a label I've never affixed to a MacGillivray Freeman documentary ... until now.

The film simply bites off more than it can chew. Ohlund spoke passionately Tuesday evening of wanting Grand Canyon Adventure to illuminate the very scary fact that fresh water sources are evaporating all over the world, and that one-fifth of Earth's human population suffers without adequately clean water.

But screenwriters Jack Stephens and Stephen Judson do a very poor job of elaborating on those frightening conditions "all over the world"; aside from a computer-model projection that reveals how one African lake has all but vanished during the previous half-century, we're simply hit with some statistics that lack specific visual proof to grant them greater validity.

As its title suggests, Grand Canyon Adventure devotes most of its 45-minute length to a rafting trip down the upper Colorado River. The excursion is led by three genuinely fascinating individuals: author/anthropologist/ explorer Wade Davis, world-renowned river advocate Robert Kennedy Jr. and Havasupai tribe member Shana Watahomigie, the first Native American to become a National Park ranger and river guide.

Individually, Davis, Kennedy or Watahomigie would have made a sensational profile subject and excellent central focus, but by trying to devote equal "story" time to each, Stephens and Judson short-change all of them. With so much instructive (didactic) ground to cover in 45 minutes, that doesn't leave much time for even one charismatic subject, let alone three.

Davis and Kennedy are accompanied by their college-age daughters, Tara and Kick, and the off-camera narrators repeatedly reference how this journey will become a "moving rite of passage" for the two young women, who bonded during the trip and remain strong friends to this day. But it's all said-bookism; we get no indication of "bonding" or anything else.

They're both cute, healthy and obviously resourceful, but MacGillivray uses them as little more than eye-candy. Frankly, that's insulting.

The film also suffers from an extremely poor sense of time and place. We've no indication of how long this river trip takes, or any sense of the distance being covered each day or week. Indeed, when Davis confesses to having slept badly the night before the rapids that will signal his final day on the river, we're brought up completely short: What, the journey's over already?

Tara and Kick haven't bonded yet!

Nor do Stephens and Judson do a satisfying job of explaining (or showing) the impressive technical difficulties involved with making this film. Grand Canyon Adventure is the first MacGillivray IMAX film shot in 3D, and Ohlund's Tuesday evening chat revealed far more fascinating detail than you'll get from the movie itself: 300-pound camera equipment the size of a refrigerator, requiring four people to carry; three-minute film magazines that cost $7,000 a pop, which obviously puts considerable pressure on the desire to get any given shot the first time.

Even narrator Robert Redford, whose participation is touted in the film's publicity, gets short shrift; his eloquently passionate and easily recognized voice isn't heard nearly as often as Davis' on-the-scene remarks. Redford should have been allowed to speak far more, and elaborate better on precisely how (for example) the Hoover Dam has damaged the river's eco-system.

As happens too frequently in this film, that particular factoid is dumped into our laps without further explanation, and then we move on.

The filmmakers manage a disquieting dramatic statement only once, when some crewmembers later head down to the lower half of the Colorado River and reveal how it no longer consistently reaches the ocean. The river bed's baked, cracked, dust-bowl appearance — which has disrupted the lives of Mexican fishermen and their families, who once could depend on the Colorado's bounty — is quite chilling.

This is the water source that all of ever-expanding Los Angeles expects to keep exploiting?

Dream on.

River rats hoping for a jolting, rip-snorting ride through various rapids — and in IMAX 3D, no less — also are in for a disappointment. The few rough-water interludes are oddly understated, no doubt because it was difficult to obtain appropriately grand "money shots" with such huge cameras, while also limited by the litany of Grand Canyon park restrictions with which the filmmakers were forced to comply. I doubt even the queasiest viewers will experience any vertigo.

Ironically, it's also quite likely that the rapids aren't as ... well ... rapid ... as remembered from other films, because the once-mighty Colorado isn't as spectacular these days. But if that is the case, nobody acknowledges as much.

Behind-the-scenes work and production elements are top-notch as always. The title credits are quite clever, with each above-the-line crewmember acknowledged in a large 3D water droplet that tantalizingly "hovers" before our eyes, apparently in reach of grasping fingers. The Dave Matthews Band delivers a rich and stirring soundtrack: an inspirational blend of power chords and songs that make a more eloquent statement, at times, than anything we see on the screen.

The canyon remains grand, but calling this film an "adventure" rather overstates the case. I'd much rather see all the photographs, video and cell-phone snaps taken by the individual expedition members, and listen to their various impressions of the journey.

I'm sure that'd be a vastly more interesting program.

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