Film Review: Amazon Adventure

Stunning 3D macro-photography and an adventurous spirit lift this frustratingly cursory recreation of an 11-year journey of discovery.
Specialty Releases

In 1848, more than a decade before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, two young naturalists and explorers—Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace—trekked into the Amazon rainforest on an expedition that ultimately would provide crucial scientific evidence supporting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Inspired by Darwin’s and other biologists’ writings on the transmutation of species, Bates and Wallace, friends in Leicester, England, set out to field-test their own theories about how one species might over time transform into another. Driven by feverish curiosity and ambition, the two voyagers, merely 23 and 25, respectively, ventured deep inside the teeming rainforests of Brazil, discovered thousands of species of plants and wildlife that previously had been unknown to science, and both made it home alive, though not together.

While Wallace returned to England four years after they first had shoved off, Bates remained in the Amazon for eleven years, exploring the vast river basin. Amazon Adventure, SK Films and Tangled Bank Studios’ colorfully illuminating 3D IMAX giant-screen dramatization of Bates’ historic expedition, traces his journey from a joyful childhood spent collecting and studying beetles, to his decade-plus spent traveling the mighty South American river and its side channels, obsessively researching the flora and fauna.

Bates, played by newcomer Calum Finlay in a genial if not all that dynamic performance, firmly believes that species were not divinely created as-is, but changed over time. After he and Wallace (Ed Birch) agree to separate in order to cover more territory, Bates dedicates himself to finding among the native butterfly species a key link in the chain of the insects’ evolution. Aided by his loyal guide, Tando (Begê Muniz), and accompanied by his pet monkey, Bates stumbles upon stunning examples of symbiosis and mimicry in nature, from caterpillars that manage to look like deadly snakes to butterflies that taste like poison. All the while, Bates and company court danger, hunger, illness and death, encountering jaguars and native tribes, and even a tsunami-sparking landslide.

In actuality, it all sounds more exciting than it plays out onscreen, as the film, directed by Mike Slee (Flight of the Butterflies) and four years in the making, is gorgeously photographed but dramatically disjointed. Slee keeps baskets, bananas and tree branches hanging round the edges of frame to emphasize some wondrously deep 3D compositions, and does make a strong impact with richly detailed macro shots of some of the Amazon’s tiniest creatures. Still, those who embark on this cinematic adventure expecting an immersive journey into the heart of the unknown or perhaps just a lively nature docudrama abounding in exciting wildlife photography might feel shortchanged by the film’s flash-card approach to showing off the various tapirs, sloths, caimans and other famously photogenic inhabitants of the rainforest.

Butterflies net the most screen time, along with the magnificent Amazonian scenery; the heartfelt depiction of Bates’ painstaking work assembling what would turn out to be an extremely influential butterfly collection should inspire many young entomologists, but it doesn’t necessarily deliver on the rollicking jungle crusade implied by the title. Moreover, the film plays the story understandably safe, almost completely avoiding portraying any relevant interpersonal drama (and, also understandably, not delving into any of the religious ramifications of the subject matter).

The script doesn’t offer Finlay much depth to play, but he holds the screen with a ready smile and a laudable physical commitment to the part. Unfortunately, Birch, as Bates’ erstwhile co-adventurer Wallace, is given no character of note to portray. At least Muniz and Finlay create a warm and endearing partnership as Bates and his indispensable right hand, Tando. And Billy Postlethwaite (son of the late Oscar-nominated actor, Pete Postlethwaite) finds amusing shades of eccentricity to play in Bates and Wallace’s sponsor Samuel Stevens, the London-based dealer of artifacts who sold specimens that Bates and Wallace shipped or brought back to England. Of course, Stevens, artifact dealer, is not the main draw of this featurette. It’s the opportunity to travel vicariously, via crisp, high-definition, large-format 3D images to where rivers run dark beneath the towering forest, to learn secrets of nature that can be decoded from the patterns on a butterfly’s wing. Had this journey sacrificed a few shots of the pet monkey, it could have packed more of that adventure into its brief, museum-friendly running time.

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