Narrated by Victor Garber, WONDERS OF THE ARCTIC centers on our ongoing mission to explore and come to terms with the Arctic. Compelling stories are interwoven to create a unifying message about the state of the Arctic today. Underlying all these tales is the crucial role that ice plays in the lives of the people and animals who have adapted to this land of ice and snow. The Inuit and their predecessors adapted and thrived for thousands of years in what is arguably the harshest environment on earth. Today, the Arctic is the focus of intense research. Instead of seeking to conquer the north, scientists working together with the Inuit are searching for answers to some troubling questions about the impacts of human activities on this fragile and largely uninhabited frontier.
'Wonders of the Arctic' is a 2014 film shot for IMAX presentation and directed by David Lickley, who has done a number of wildlife-related IMAX movies in the past, although this is his most-recent effort. The film takes a look at both human and animal life in the Arctic circle, covering a number of different locations. It's all narrated by Victor Garber, who knows a thing or two about icebergs, having co-starred in Titanic.
As with most IMAX movies, one of the big draws to 'Wonders of the Arctic' are the visuals...and we get a lot of impressive ones early in the movie, as there are some impressive wide-angle shots of the barren landscape. This, however, is also the dullest part of the film, as we watch a female researcher work with some of the local Inuit population to study what effect global warming is having on ice melt. Yes, important work to be sure, but not exactly engaging to watch. She does have some cute dogs though (they're sled dogs that help her get from location to location).
The middle part of the movie gets a little more interesting, as viewers are taken beneath the surface to take a look at the sea life underneath. In particular, focus is given to the bowhead whale, a species that was once on the verge of extinction (thanks to whale hunters), but now number in the thousands. Most interestingly, the bowhead whale is one of the longest-living mammals on Earth, with a lifespan of over 200 years. That's a long time to muck about in the water.
The most engaging part of "Wonders of the Arctic', however, is when the filmmakers go south to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, where the polar bear population is equal to the human population. There, a man identified as only "Bob" takes on the duty of keeping the polar bears out of town on Halloween night so the community can go trick or treating. One rogue bear tries to sneak into Churchill for some candy and Bob and a few of his buddies have to tranquilize it and put him in the town's polar bear holding facility (which actually looks like the biggest building around) overnight. The next morning, it's air-lifted out into the middle of nowhere and dumped off. You have to wonder what the bear is thinking when it comes around...probably "Where the heck am I?"
It's a shame more of 'Wonders of the Arctic' couldn't have been like that last segment, as it was really interesting to watch and...let's face it...polar bears are cool. That bit of this movie is enough for me to recommend a viewing, however, it's not enough for me to recommend the overall film, which is probably best to see via a rental. I own a number of these Shout Factory IMAX 4K releases, and this is my least favorite of the lot. I can't help but think other filmmakers could have made a trip into the Arctic a whole lot more interesting.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Wonders of the Arctic' defrosts onto home video in this 4K UHD/Blu-ray/Digital Copy combo pack. The 4K disc and the 50GB Blu-ray are housed inside a black Elite keepcase, which also contains an insert for a downloadable (but not streaming) digital copy of the film. There are no front-loaded trailers on either disc, whose main menu contains a montage of footage from the movie, with selections running horizontally about one-third down from the top of the screen (just below the title and above the footage).
Despite having the Region A code on the back box cover as well as the disc itself, the Blu-ray in this release is actually region-free. 4K Ultra HD discs have no region coding.
As with prior Shout Factory IMAX titles, viewers will have the option here of watching the 4K version in either SDR (standard dynamic range) or HDR (high dynamic range), and as you can probably already guess, HDR is the way to go for those who have the capability on their 4K TVs. The HDR provides much deeper colors (the ice and snow take on a much more bluish quality) and better detail...and this is a title where better detail is important, as I found a lack of it in some of the footage shot in the coldest environments. Perhaps it's due to the cold weather affecting the camera and or film, but the early scenes in the movie have a somewhat flat look to them, aside from some beautiful establishing shots of the icy environment. There's also the odd option to use a lens that kind of curves the image and makes the people in them look disproportionate. I'm guessing this was done to make the 3D image have more depth (which viewers can check out on the Blu-ray disc), but it's a little distracting in 4K.
There's also a small portion of the film that goes underwater to take a look at the Arctic sea life and, as you might imagine, those images often suffer from a bit of murkiness as well. However, at least it's a bit of a change from the almost consistent white imagery leading up to this point in the film.
The best looking parts of 'Wonders of the Arctic' occur in the last bit of the movie, as the filmmakers travel a bit further south into a small town in Canada, where they look at local law enforcement trying to deal with the threat of polar bears to the town's populace. Here, there's some wonderful detail and the kind of images I wish the whole film had provided.
Given Shout Factory's track record with their prior IMAX releases, all of the visual problems here are most certainly issues with their source material and not the actual transfer. Still, of all the Shout Factory 4K discs I own, this one has the least appealing picture overall. As for any technical glitches, I did notice some jittering in some of the helicopter shots taken of the Arctic from the air, but this is mostly a clean-looking transfer, other than the additional issues I've already listed above.
For those wondering about the 3D presentation over on the standard Blu-ray disc, it's worth checking out and adds some impressive depth to some of the scenes. There are a few scenes that come off as flat in the 3D version, but the extra dimension does add a bit more enjoyment to watching the movie.
The featured track here is an English Atmos one, which downgrades to a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track for those without an Atmos set-up. As you can probably guess, the audio here is pretty decent, especially when it comes to the ambient noises involved in the film, such as the scampering across the snow of sled dogs or the blowing of harsh Arctic winds. However, where the track doesn't do a great job is involving the movie's musical soundtrack. There are issues with the high ends of the soundtrack where it borders on becoming distorted. It doesn't quite reach feedback levels, but you can hear the audio bordering right on the edge of it.
Otherwise, the track is serviceable enough – although I can't help but get the feeling that this one only got the Atmos upgrade because all of the other IMAX Shout Factory releases have gotten one. There are no serious glitches here, but if the Atmos track is a big reason you're buying this, you may find yourself less than impressed. There's really not a whole lot of instances where the audio provides the viewer with an immersive feel.
In addition to the Atmos English track (available on both the 4K and Blu-ray discs), the 4K disc includes a French DTS-HD 5.1 Dolby Digital track, while the Blu-ray has a 5.1 Dolby Digital French track. Both discs offer English subtitles.
I have to confess the polar bears saved this one. I found the first half of 'Wonders of the Arctic' to be rather dull and unfocused, albeit with some wonderful visuals. The middle part is a little better, focusing on the underwater sea life. But it's the final part of the film – with the polar bears – that make the movie worth a look. Still, unless you're collecting all of these Shout Factory releases, this one falls solidly into rental territory.