DIRECTED BY: Ronan Chapalain, Pascal Vuong
STARRING: Richard Rider, Chloe Hollings
SHOWING: Sept. 2, Great Clips IMAX Theatre
Two hundred and forty five million years ago, 95 percent of all species were extinguished from the face of the earth. A little more than 200 years ago, naturalists in Maastricht, Netherlands unearthed an enormous creature's skull, one that belonged to what came to be called “the unknown animal of Maastricht.” Unknown, that is, until Georges Cuvier — father of paleontology and the oddly dandyish narrator of the 3-D documentary “Sea Rex” — came forward to identify the creature as a giant reptile.
“Holy [expletive], guys,” he may have said in his native French, “that's a big-ass lizard.” And thus, the lid was blown off Pandora's big ol' box of dinosaurs, land and sea-faring alike.
“Sea Rex” is the latest in the Minnesota Zoo's successive line of 3-D micro-features about planet Earth's manifold flora and fauna. However, as it treks through its titular “prehistoric journey,” the film reveals itself to be less of an adventure than a guided tour. It may be too much to ask to see some rough sea-dinosaur sex, overwrought scaly skin and open stab wounds, but a generation weaned on Pixar and bloodshed will hunger for the nitty-gritty.
Instead, the CGI-heavy “Sea Rex” consistently shies away from a confrontation with death and the daily reality of being a sea-bound carnivore. When the gargantuan crocodile-like Prognathodon rushes to battle a 20-foot-long primitive ancestor of the great white shark, the audience is awash in nothing but eyeballs and teeth before the film nervously cuts to a new scene. As viewers watch on, unblinking through their oversized magic sunglasses, the camera averts its gaze. “Let's move on,” the feature seems to say just as the blood starts to boil, so to speak.
To soften the blow even further, the movie hosts a soundtrack comprised of constant cliché orchestral swells and dashes of Enya for flavor. The music director clearly felt he had a stroke of insight when he realized that if a Liopleurodon could live his life to one song, it would definitely be “Orinoco Flow.” It could just as well be that ukulele version of “Over the Rainbow” as sung by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, aka Hawaii's obese sweetheart.
This just goes to say that the biggest mistake “Sea Rex” makes is that it rarely, if ever, lets nature speak for itself. There is an eagerness to leave no fossil unturned. Granted, it could be the unintended byproduct of an attempt to tell the sprawling tale of life over three Mesozoic periods in less than an hour, but somebody needs to inform these schoolchildren that it's called “show and tell,” not “tell and tell.”
This isn't to say that “Sea Rex” doesn't deliver on some promises. A frozen, 360-degree horizontal survey of a long necked dinosaur about to eat a bird is an unexpected treat, and the craning neck of a plesiosaur dips its head so deep into the audience you might just stretch out your hand and feed it popcorn. Also (spoiler alert), two Liopleurodon totally get it on.
Chintzy graphics of a spinning globe in space also give the story its cosmic lift and that much-needed incentive to call your dealer and go see the thing. When narrator Cuvier talks about the Cenozoic era and the brief time humans have walked the planet he notes that, in comparison to the age of the earth, we've been here for “the blink an eye.” Unfortunately, the potential for an existential crisis is soon dashed by the actor's David Bowie-esque head tilt, eye squint and lip-pursing. It's also the only moment in the movie where the finger is pointed back at the audience, especially considering the movie's curious fixation on predators. There is otherwise no contemplation on the futility of existence, inevitable death and the cruel, heartless gaze of Mother Nature.
“Sea Rex” is like “It's a Wonderful Life” meets “Jurassic Park” meets “Waterworld,” as animated by a couple of precocious DreamWorks interns. Fans of dinosaurs will be better off watching the tangential “Tree of Life” and skipping all the parts that make sense, as this sea monster flick stayed in the shallow end and still managed to drown in its own potential.
1 / 4 stars
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