News cameras and still photography can't convey the immensity of what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans in September 2005 -- the vastness of the destruction, the breadth of inundation. For that, we need
The smart, classy "Hurricane on the Bayou," currently sprawling across the giant screen at the Museum of Science's Mugar Omni Theater, preaches an invaluable environmental lesson for children and parents: Don't monkey with the ecosystem without expecting payback.
In the case of New Orleans, the film presses the case that decades of flood-control efforts have destroyed the wetlands that buffer the city from tropical storms. The statistics mount up -- every three miles of protective habitat lowers the sea surge by a foot; the amount of wetlands lost in the past 70 years is bigger than the state of Delaware. More powerful is a simple IMAX shot of the muddy Mississippi River that shows the land literally washing away.
The movie works hard to ring the alarm bell without scaring the kids, and it has in 14-year-old fiddle prodigy Amanda Shaw an appealing stand-in for younger audiences. With her musician buddies, zydeco accordionist Chubby Carrier and Cajun musician Tab Benoit , Shaw tours the bayous, gets close to baby alligators, and learns that habitat loss can be reversed. Over to your generation, Amanda.
The film is ostensibly narrated by Meryl Streep but mostly lets these easygoing activists have their say, occasionally bringing on Allen Toussaint and Aaron Neville for musical street-cred. The film's soundtrack, not surprisingly, strides majestically.
Directed by Greg MacGillivray , who made one of the first IMAX films in 1976 and is still going strong 28 large-format films later, "Hurricane" isn't interested in socio-political rage à la Spike Lee's essential documentary "When the Levees Broke ." The only finger-pointing is indirect, as when one of the narrators dryly notes , "With no help on the way, people rescued each other."
Instead, the film's trump card is its footage of post-Katrina New Orleans: aerial images of a drowned city that wrap themselves around your head with fresh force. A ship dropped almost casually on a highway bridge is all the more eerie for the acres of space filled with lesser wreckage extending beyond one's limits of vision.
MacGillivray was making "Hurricane" before Katrina struck, and he borrowed a chopper from the Florida set of "Miami Vice" to get his IMAX shots of the post-storm landscape. What was intended to be a warning about future cataclysm has become a powerful documentary of present-tense disaster. The filmmakers don't have to say "See?" when their evidence is this big.