Whew! It was beginning to look like Imax had cornered the market on nice, interesting wildlife documentaries. You know, those innocuous mini-movies in which creatures you rarely see so close up do the cutest and most curious things.
For 10 minutes or so, the non-Imax ''Deep Blue" seems like that sort of movie.
Look, for instance, at those sea lions frolicking on the shore. You're noticing how totally shiny and adorable their pelts are, when, suddenly, the carcass of one sea lion goes flying through the air and crashes, hard and ominously, back into the ocean. Did no one see that dorsal fin? Run, sea lions -- or flop really fast! The frame slows down as they attempt to escape up shore, but it's no use. The killer whales have arrived, with every intention of living up to their names, not their Sea World reputations.
Just like that, this seemingly placid look at fish turns into a survival rhapsody that is mercifully unsuitable for a typical Imax audience.
''Deep Blue" is billed as ''a natural history of the oceans." But it's also an exquisitely made ballet that operates on the not-entirely-false presumption that its ideal audience is both innocent and bloodthirsty, much like the menageries of sea life on display. The film is a better action movie than most of what you'll see this summer, and there are certainly more visceral thrills. Near the beginning of the film, there's a hypnotic feeding frenzy, starring dolphins and seagulls who go after the same sardine shoal. The three factions perform a pas de trois, with the birds torpedoing underwater from the sky, the dolphins undulating in unison, and the shimmering curtain of sardines swerving and twisting for dear life.
The longer the dance goes on, the more it starts to evoke the horror of the Normandy Beach sequence from ''Saving Private Ryan."
In 83 minutes, the film moves from sandy beaches around the world to activity miles and miles below on the ocean floor, where a volcanic metropolis and its rarely glimpsed inhabitants await. One minute we're with armadas of sand crabs, then it's on to the huge, brilliantly spotted, awesomely striped whale shark, who, were it a $300 shirt, would be an Etro.
From there we see that coral is not to be toyed with and that the stingray is best described as a UFO that prefers to land on its dinner. Some jellyfish pulse and glow like spaceships at the end of ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Others look like something Halle Berry would wear to the Oscars. Most impressive of all is the Falstaffian 30-ton blue whale.
Directed by Alistair Fothergill and Andy Byatt and edited by Martin Elsbury, ''Deep Blue" is a riveting and sobering way to spend a Saturday afternoon. It's a chance to compare the violent tendencies of our aquatic brethren with our own (sadly, their carnage makes more sense); to contemplate the vastness of life on this planet; and to puzzle over our depressing irrelevance in the scheme of things.
Despite the haughty narration from Pierce Brosnan (''Our planet is a blue planet"), the movie is far from didactic. It's lyrical. The trip to the Marianas Trench and its various volcanoes -- which was previously covered in James Cameron's exploratory Imax outing, ''Aliens of the Deep" -- is breathtaking, and more seductive than physically overwhelming.
Cameron seems to prefer Imax in his own bigger-is-better way. But size here matters only if we're talking about blue whales.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.