Large-format cinema should bring to mind two related media to its practitioners, who must think in terms of a screen size that ups the ante on CinemaScope. The scale and the screen ratio recapture the impact that silent films projected in large halls must have had. Not since the silent era has the cinema been so intoxicatingly, overwhelmingly visual. The images alone of most large-format films impress and envelop the viewer, to an extent that prevents the detachment which modern audiences take for granted. Like the huge face of Garbo in her silent work, the gorgeous landscapes of films such as Journey Into Amazing Caves, the latest from MacGillivray Freeman Films (Everest, Adventures in Wild California), loom over the viewer and hold an irresistible sway.

An even closer, but lesser-known artistic cousin to large-format film is large-format still photography. Pioneered by individuals such as Douglas Isaac Busch, the still-life variant delivers, like large-format film, images with fabulous, meticulous detail. Busch's work seems to cut into reality itself, revealing hidden features in nature in a way that resembles impressionist painting. A single photograph can take many minutes to absorb.

Both of these comparisons help to see the strengths and weaknesses of Journey Into Amazing Caves, directed by Stephen Judson. Chronicling the exploration of three widely different but equally treacherous caves, the documentary provides stunning shots of dramatic, craggy tunnels and twining, underwater caverns. One of the cavers aptly describes the environs as dreamlike. The field of ice hundreds of feet deep inside a narrow Greenland ravine, for instance, is such a spellbinding blue that it seems unreal--or like a Hollywood set. The pristine large-format delivery enhances this strangeness. The crystal-clear images, and their enormous size, make the surroundings feel almost touchable to the viewer. If we could follow our imagination and step into the picture, we expect that we would come into contact with the expanse and severity of the place. In fact, MacGillivray Freeman, as in its past productions, has once again made innovations to camera equipment and lighting to bring about intimate images.

Amazing Caves intelligently programs the segments, starting with the most familiar-looking kind of cave, a limestone formation in the Grand Canyon, and finishing with a labyrinthine, water-filled cave system in the Yucatan. Keeping the stories to just three allows for a concentration on subject matter that is unusual but welcome in large-format documentaries; many in the genre, including the producers' last effort, Adventures in Wild California, visit twice as many locations and spread themselves thinly. Liam Neeson's narration lends a thoughtful note to the proceedings.

As much as Amazing Caves awes with its visuals, its incessant, altogether intrusive score nearly wrecks the experience. There is hardly a spot where this booming, clumsy and cloying wall of clatter doesn't swell up. In an effective silent film, the music works to underscore and accompany the feelings we have of what we watch on screen. But in utter disagreement with the serene sites depicted in Amazing Caves, the score blasts out orchestral arrangements, rock, and what have you. It's like taking a boom box deep into a lovely forest--it would annoy the hell out of the wildlife, and any sightseers nearby. In contrast, the explorers in Amazing Caves, by their humility and gentle enthusiasm, show much more respect for their environment than the filmmakers do.

The lack of lasting feeling for the settings further shows up in the camerawork. The speedy aerial shots through the gorges of the Grand Canyon fail to make a consideration of the views; they plow forward but not once linger. The filmmakers don't trust the beauty of the area to capture the audience's attention; trick flying has to come first. Large format film is the ideal vehicle for capturing the texture of rock, plant life, and light, but only a few times, such as in the ice cave sequence, does Amazing Caves dare to go beyond peeping at the fantastic, and positively dwell for a little bit. Amazing Caves remains impressionistic, but more like a travelogue is than Monet.

--Peter Henne