The good earth

A panoramic, and pantheistic, view of the dwindling wild world makes the emotional and spiritual case for preserving what remains of our Sacred Planet, now showing at the Rivercenter IMAX.

'Sacred Planet' puts the IMAX screen to work for the environment

There are two opposing strategies for recruiting environmentalists: consternation and elation. Alarmed that the oceans are dying, that clean air and water have been sacrificed to corporate profits, that other species are vanishing while ours proliferates into fatal congestion, and that it is too late to answer the call of the wild because the wild has been tamed, who would not join the Nature Conservancy if not the Earth Liberation Front? However, the majestic spectacle of waterfalls, redwoods, and antelopes, of a vibrant world hundreds of miles from the nearest Coke bottle, where Wal-Mart has not yet paved a parking lot, might inspire even Gale Norton to hug a tree.

Sacred Planet takes the road less traveled, through snowy peaks beneath starry skies. Except for a brief glimpse at woodlands clearcut into wasteland and recurring images of urban commuters magnified into frenzy by time-lapse photography, Jon Long's IMAX experience is a gorgeous reminder of what is being lost. Robert Redford, a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, provides spare narration to accompany sequences in undeveloped areas of Malaysia, the American Southwest, Namibia, Thailand, British Columbia, and Borneo. The camera tracks through rainforests, mountains, deserts, oceans, and savannahs that remain untouched by golden arches, and we observe zebras, eagles, whales, herons, monkeys, dolphins, elephants, centipedes, bears, and other varieties of fish, flesh, and fowl cavorting in their natural habitat. The voice of a native informant from each place introduces ancient commonplaces. "All life forms are interconnected," says one.

Perhaps that is why no effort is made to identify or contextualize the speakers. Or perhaps the 45-minute format of an IMAX presentation allows little time for anything but a lovely slide show. Though it aims for exaltation, Sacred Planet settles for the merely picturesque. "We treat the earth as our mother," declares one of the indigenous voices, but this film treats its viewer as a voyeur of the primal life. It is an environmental travelogue that offers all the sights of a Sierra Club outing, without the risks of snakebite, malaria, or a stolen passport.

"There is spirit in everything," proclaims another voice, and Sacred Planet extends pantheistic reverence to everything (except cityscapes) captured on its lenses. It presents forests as cathedrals, as if celestial light penetrating the branches of lofty trees were not already a cliché when Caspar David Friedrich romanticized nature on canvas in the early 19th century. Small, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers are presented as noble savages, not perpetual slaves to procuring protein who will never get to see the inspiring vistas shot from planes and cars that constitute this film. If everything is sacred, then nothing is sacred, too, not even virtuous intentions. "The most sacred thing that we've ever had is choice," observes Redford at the end of Sacred Planet, "and that's where it all begins."

Sacred Planet
Dir. Jon Long; writ. Karen Fernandez, Jon Long; narr. Robert Redford (G)
The lesson of this collection of augmented picture postcards is that unless we choose to take urgent action to preserve the wilderness, the vivid sights that we have just seen will soon exist only on film. No one but a Bush Republican would disagree with that. The ideal of one native, "to live humbly on the land, to live humbly in this world," is hardly the creed of a certain rancher in Crawford. Yet, Sacred Planet leaves its viewers impassioned but uninformed. Terrains and inhabitants of Asia, Africa, and North America are often indistinguishable.

Long's film sometimes seems like a blander remake of Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio's 1983 film that takes its name from a Hopi word meaning life out of balance. Both films depend on montage and time-lapse photography to convey an air of crisis in our species' relationship to nature. Though made 20 years and billions of McDonald's burgers ago, Koyaanisqatsi seems both more urgent and more enduring.

"When life is good, then we have time for the artist," says a native of the British Columbian Pacific coast to explain the place of totem-pole carving within his traditional culture. But it is precisely when life is not good, when it has fallen out of balance, that we in the developed world need artists to marshal their talents to restore the harmony. "The most important thing," claims a native of Thailand, "is to have a peaceful heart." Sacred Planet puts its heart-felt art in the right places: pristine spots that seem all the more precious because they are endangered and because their vulnerability makes us, too, an endangered species. But to overcome those dangers, we also need to put our minds to it. •

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