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MOVIE REVIEW

'Galapagos' evolves into an enjoyable film

The eerie, almost lunar volcanic landscape of the Galapagos Islands is familiar to us from the writings of Charles Darwin, who developed his theory of evolution after seeing the remarkable adaptations of creatures there, and from countless documentaries about Darwin and his heirs. What we've seen less of is the remarkable underwater world that surrounds these islands -- and that's where the most memorable footage in ''Galapagos" takes us.

The film begins on land, though, and like the terrain it's a little rocky. The 3-D IMAX format pushes any nearby boulders too far into the foreground, distracting from the iguanas or birds farther back and generating a migrainous kind of shimmer around the rocks' hard edges. The format is at its worst in scenes featuring people; we may like our characters well rounded in fiction, but onscreen they look much more lifelike when they're flat.

It doesn't help that the land sequences, directed by David Clark, have an aimless and by-the-numbers feel. Scientist Carole Baldwin, photogenically attired in tank top and tiny shorts, climbs rocks and lowers herself into caves, to little apparent point. OK, the iguanas are cool, and so are the tortoises -- but why is Baldwin, a marine biologist, our guide on land?

Things pick up once we follow her into her preferred habitat, underwater. In these sequences, directed by Al Giddings, the 3-D format shows off its strengths. Giddings immerses us in a dazzlingly dense and gleaming school of fish, sends hammerhead sharks straight toward us, and generally exploits the medium to make us feel as if we're exploring this little-known world ourselves.

And what a world it is: far more populated than many better-known diving sites, with a rich diversity of species, many of them unique. When Baldwin and her colleagues take a submersible to the ocean floor, they discover -- and vacuum up with a special collection tube -- several previously unknown kinds of fish and marine invertebrates. As Baldwin talks about them, her voice conveys the wonder and delight of a scientist living her dream.

The narrator's voice is another story. Who knew Kenneth Branagh could sound so pompous and devoid of humor? His delivery at times approaches the Pythonesque, nudged toward self-parody by a graceless, uncredited script and Mark Isham's overbearing score. Combine that with the giant boulders, and you've got yourself a world-class headache.

Still, a few magnificent moments underwater can make it all seem worthwhile. Children will love the iguanas (not to mention the sharks), and adults? Well, close your eyes if the rocks get to you, then relax and enjoy the undersea trip.

Galapagos
**1/2

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