Film Review: Mysteries of the Unseen World

Cameras capture what the human eye can't see in this 3D IMAX documentary.

A visual feast, Mysteries of the Unseen World introduces viewers to the latest advances in scientific cinematography, made all the more impressive by 3D and IMAX. Sure to be a mainstay of school outings, this National Geographic release is more fun than educational. Unlike IMAX nature documentaries, there's not much of a message here, other than how beautiful and weird the world around us can be.

Directed by Louis Schwartzberg, an innovative time-lapse photographer, Mysteries of the Unseen World sets out to show viewers things that are "too fast, too slow and too small" for the human eye to comprehend.

Narrator Forest Whitaker gives a brief rundown on light waves, starting with the visible spectrum and then branching out into longer and shorter waves—ultraviolet and gamma for the former, infrared and radio waves for the latter. The movie uses close-ups of bees, who find pollen through ultraviolet light; infrared imagery of boiling water; and other examples to help viewers see different visual dimensions.

Mysteries of the Unseen World hits its stride with its time-lapse sequences. Schwartzberg includes fascinating archival clips from John Nash Ott, a time-lapse pioneer, whose films from the 1930s showed flowers blooming in seconds. Schwartzberg then proceeds to astonishing modern-day footage of vines climbing tree trunks and slime mold spreading across leaves.

Ott sped up time to capture processes we wouldn't otherwise notice; Harold Edgerton did the opposite, filming 125 feet a second with strobe lights to show exactly what happens when a drop of water lands in a puddle or a bullet pierces an apple. Schwartzberg expands on Edgerton's work, showing how a dragonfly can operate its four wings independently, or how lightning can ascend from the earth to the sky.

Unlike Ott or Edgerton, Schwartzberg has the processing power to move his camera during the time-lapse sequences. With the addition of 3D, a shot of an owl hurtling toward the camera, its talons outstretched, assumes far more power than the average nature documentary.

The last section of Mysteries of the Unseen World deal with what the script calls the "nano world," in which scientists operate on a molecular level. Graphene, for example, is a single layer of carbon atoms that can be wrapped into a tube. But here Schwartzberg is limited by the fact that scanning electron microscopes can supply only still images. As a result, the movie starts to fudge the distinction between real photography and special effects.

Youngsters aren't likely to complain about Schwartzberg's computer effects or about the film's relative lack of teaching moments, and adults can't help but be amazed by these astonishing glimpses into alternate worlds.