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DVD: Solarmax (2000) - IMAX
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Sling Shot Entertainment
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1 (NTSC)

April 2, 2002



Genre: Documentary / Space / IMAX  
Informative and visually arresting documentary on the violent 11-year cycle when the sun's polar regions shift, causing interstellar disturbances.  



Directed by:

John Weiley
Screenplay by: John Weiley
Music by: Nigel Westlake
Produced by: John Weiley, Robert Eather

Laex Scott (narrator)

Film Length: 40 mins
Process/Ratio: 1.33:1
Anamorphic DVD: Yes
Languages:  English Dolby Digital 5.1, Englisg DTS 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles:  English
Special Features :  

Audio Commentary #1: Co-producer Robert Eather / Audio Commentary #2: Writer-Director-Producer John Weiley / Bonus documentary: "Spirits of the Polar Night: The Aurora" (31:05) / CD-ROM content: "Exploring the Sun" / Hot facts Trivia Game / Trailers / Optional English, French, Spanish menus

Comments :

Solarmax is an abbreviated term for solar maximum, the peak period of magnetic, irradiated disturbances that occurs when the poles of the sun reverse every 11 years, causing sunspots, and cosmic rays that can potentially affect the Earth’s weather and temperatures.

The eponymous IMAX film presents a much broader overview, and while the film’s critics are miffed by the lack of lengthy, detailed visuals, John Weiley’s film is one of the most engaging and fact-heavy IMAX docs in recent years, balancing visuals and information without a diluted scientific content for grammar school audiences.

As wonderful as the format is for educating and impressing, filmmakers have had trouble finding the right combination where their films aren’t primarily Big Picture Shows with perfunctory, sometimes juvenile narrations. The IMAX space and nature films tend to stray close to the border of oversimplification, but Weiley was smart in packing a lot of history and unique visual representations that will ensure Solarmax will remain an engaging doc and teaching tool.

In its broadest scope, the doc covers humankind’s fascination with the sun, and the ancients’ methods of building seasonal clocks to aid in the division of time for crop planting and yearly calendars. Weiley jumps between five separate continents, moving from the world’s oldest building in Scotland to structures in Machu Picchu, Peru, Japan, and Europe, establishing  the key stages where the sun was recognized as the hub around which the Earth and other planets circulate.

That eventual conclusion – the Earth isn’t the centre of the universe – extends to the aurora phenomenon (captured in IMAX, as well by the U.S. military, as seen in extracts of declassified satellite footage of the aurora australis from Earth’s orbit during rotation), which Weiley ties to sunspots, and displays of solarmax.

It’s a logical chronology that could easily have been supported by stock shots and stills, but Weiley and co-producer / science consultant Robert Eather went all-out in visiting actual historic sites, photographing vintage texts and drawings, and in spite of some disastrous accidents involving destroyed film footage, they were extremely lucky during production.

Over a period of 3 years, Eather himself built a new IMAX camera capable of filming the aurora phenomenon at f.1 by placing the film stock as close to wide angle lenses as possible, and the design ensured it was also handy for some remarkable time-lapse cinematography. The filmmakers also had access to high-res footage of early and newly captured sun footage from the Trace satellite and Soho spacecraft (before and after Soho was rebooted back to life after a technical blunder almost turned it into space junk), as well gorgeous footage of a lunar eclipse, cosmic winds, and sunspots with their corresponding sounds.

What the film’s detractors failed to understand is the sun footage is a complex mosaic of satellite stills, and what constitutes a few minutes of moving footage is comprised of massive images that need to be stitched together and edited into a fluid montage, and much like an animated film, the money shots just aren’t long.

But they are big in IMAX, and are complimented by Nigel Westlake’s superb score, and while one wishes the DVD contained galleries of unedited footage, one suspects that omission is due to rights; if anyone wants more, they’d have to arrange for permission and remuneration with the institutions that own them.

When originally released on DVD in 2002 by Sling Shot Entertainment, Solarmax came in two editions: a limited version sported a CD of Westlake’s score, but the DVDs contained identical extras: include two audio commentary tracks, CD-ROM content, and a short documentary.

In his own track, co-producer / upper atmosphere and space physicist Robert Eather is a bit sporadic, but his comments further detail the film’s production, shooting in multiple locations and their uniqueness to astronomy and science. Writer / director Weiley provides more generic information, and he fails to add additional details on how the production was assembled, filmed, scored, and distributed, and his bass voice was recorded too low, making his comments muddy whenever Alex Scott’s narration pops up. It’s not a bad commentary track – just poorly managed and organized.

The real treat among the extras is a 1972 documentary co-directed by Eather and broadcast by PBS. Spirits Of The Polar Night: The Aurora was among the first docs to showcase the aurora borealis, and Eather offers excellent footage of both Antarctic and Arctic scientific installations, with the latter’s results captured by cameras in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Churchill, Canada.

The montages that demonstrate the auroras as captured in still and 70mm film are almost as dynamic as the IMAX footage (just disaffected by what seems to be a grainy, somewhat worn 16mm source print), and it’s amusing to see stills of Kristian Bikeland’s vacuum chamber experiment that accurately demonstrated the nature of the aurora phenomenon at the turn of the century; Eather later filmed the functioning contraption in IMAX when the Norwegian scientist’s original gizmo was restored during the making of Solarmax.

Intercut between celestial footage are various interviews, and the sway of scientific facts eventually move towards the mythic and cultural significance of the aurora phenomenon among aboriginals in Alaska, Canada, and Karasjok, Norway. In addition to co-directing, Eather also filmed the aurora borealis, and the images are supported by Michael Colina’s primordial synth score,

Solarmax was released on Blu-ray in 2010 by Razor Digital Entertainment (via Warner Music), but it’s a bare bones edition, lacking the extras. Fans of the doc might want to snap up the HD edition anyways, because the cinematography as a whole is superb, and the sound mix features an aggressive combination of score, music, and sound effects.


© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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