Review: “Ancient Caves” at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omnitheater Sets a New Low (In a Good Way)

Review: “Ancient Caves” at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omnitheater Sets a New Low (In a Good Way)

Ancient Caves. A journey hundreds of feet below the earth, into palatial caverns and underwater forests of translucent crystals, captured in immersive visual splendor. You’re in, right? You don’t need a reason to go.

Um, yes you do. This is science.

The reason for paleoclimatologist Gina Moseley’s descents, we learn in Ancient Caves, is to gather data about past changes in the earth’s climate. Specifically, in the stunning new film opening today at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omnitheater, she’s researching the question of how rapidly sea levels rose during past warming events. As narrator Bryan Cranston points out, this is not unrelated to the question of what we can expect in our planet’s very near future.

Ancient Caves is a triumph for the format, delivering both truly rare visual wonders and the kind of deliberate, substantive scientific education that hasn’t always made it through the cute-penguin montages and helicopter-over-the-waterfall shots of past dome films. That’s a credit to director Jonathan Bird, but it also speaks to the reach of the new digital equipment that was used to shoot the film.

Certain shots in the film could never have been achieved using traditional film cameras, executive producer Mike Day told me before a preview screening this week. When you see the film, it’s obvious why: spelunkers are shown squeezing through almost prohibitively tight spots as they descend through a warren of stunning spaces in the Bahamas’ Crystal Caves of Abaco.

The film is also projected digitally, which means you won’t hear the familiar putt-putt-putt-whirring of the giant projector starting up at the beginning of the film. The Omnitheater’s new “Laser Dome” digital projection system, years in the making, delivers superior image quality and gives the museum greater flexibility.

Both the groundbreaking projection system and Ancient Caves itself, in which the Minnesota museum was a production partner via the Giant Dome Theater Consortium, are testament to the Science Museum’s leadership role in the community of institutions with the capability to deliver experiences like this. Between the Laser Dome and the sleek planetarium at the new Bell Museum, Minnesotans in the Venn diagram overlap between dome screen fans and science lovers have never had it better. (You know who you are.)

In Ancient Caves, Minnesota even gets to see a bit of itself. Moseley, the Austria-based, star of the film, collaborates with University of Minnesota geochemist Larry Edwards to analyze her samples — so we get some sweeping shots of the West Bank in Minneapolis along with a brief descent into a cave that lies beneath southeastern Minnesota farmland.

At a time when it seems like everything is awful and getting worse, Ancient Caves is a welcome oasis of wonder and hope in the context of clear-eyed science. Shot with sweep and style, it’s a reminder that earth still holds uncharted wonders — and that it’s our job to preserve them, in part so we can learn more about how to preserve the more mundane but no less precious wonders we enjoy every day.

Jay Gabler