Now at the Museum of Science, "Amazon: An IMAX Experience" strikes a rewarding balance between stunning visuals, bold cinematography and a thoughtful narrative about crucial connections between science and folk medicine.
In a grainy film resembling a black-and-white newsreel, a white hunter wearing a pith helmet escapes natives with blow guns and shoots flesh-eating piranhas attacking his canoe in the make-believe jungle.
A narrator solemnly intones, "Our perceptions of the Amazon are mostly mythical."
Suddenly, a brilliant green rainforest stretching toward a distant horizon covers the 76-foot dome screen of the Mugar Omni Theater in the Museum of Science.
A snake flicks a forked tongue. Bare feet step carefully along a muddy path. A red-face monkey yammers. The Amazon cuts its winding path through the emerald canopy.
"But in the Amazon," observes actress and narrator Linda Hunt, "reality is more amazing than mythology."
In just 40 minutes, this gorgeous informative IMAX film, "Amazon," proves that claim.
While many big-screen films employ dazzling in-your-eyeballs close-ups, director Kieth Merrill has the good sense and confidence to satisfy viewers' imaginations and intelligence.
Just minutes into the film, Hunt details the natural wonders of the Amazon Rainforest as the camera soars above rushing cataracts and through broadleaf trees to scenes of prowling jaguars and flamboyant toucans.
Encompassing 7 million square kilometers including 1.4 billion acres of rain forest, the Amazon basin hosts "the greatest living variety of life on earth." Located largely in Brazil and Peru with smaller portions in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana and Suriname, the 55-million-year-old forest supports unequalled biodiversity including 2.5 million insect species, 40,000 plant species, 3,000 species of fish, 1,750 species of birds and mammals representing nearly one-tenth of all plant and animal species on Earth.
As a small plane cruises above the Amazon at tree-top level, Hunt recalls the "timeless land of the Incas" whose doctors used forgotten herbal medicines to keep the royal family healthy.
While most IMAX movies paste spectacular scenery onto sometimes flimsy or didactic plots, "Amazon" successfully melds actual scientific exploration with a believable, though largely fictional plot.
An Incan healer named Julio Mamani sets off to find rare forest plants to help him "cure the illnesses and prolong the lives" of people in his remote Bolivian village in the Andes.
He walks and rides donkeys, buses, boats and a rickety train through scenery of eye-popping natural majesty. On a journey of "200 miles as the condor flies," Mamani passes through forests, over mountains, down rivers, past waterfalls and eventually reaches the great temples of Machu Picchu, a sacred destination which gives his journey an epic quality.
Viewers then meet Dr. Mark Plotkin, a world-famous ethnobotanist who's spent 25 years collecting plants that might "cure diseases Western medicine hasn't conquered."
The author of "Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice," the bearded, ruggedly handsome Plotkin, who plays himself, exudes respect for the local healers he meets and expresses concerns that development, deforestation and environmental degradation threaten the Amazon before it reveals its secrets.
"I'm driven by dread some of these species are disappearing before their lifesaving attributes are found," he said. "The Amazon rainforest is one of the most promising places to look for them."
As Mamani's and Plotkin's paths cross, viewers might sense the promise of two very different healers, each respecting the other's intentions, determined to preserve a natural treasure of measureless splendor and importance.
Like most IMAX movies, "Amazon" dazzles the eyes. But it also makes you care about this vast natural wonderland and that's an even more important reason for seeing it.
The Museum of Science is at 1 Science Park, Boston.
"Amazon: An IMAX Film Experience" can be viewed several times a week in the Mugar Omni Theater through Sept. 6.
Admission to the Mugar Omni Theater is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors (60+) and $7 for children (3-11). Evening Omni discounts are available after 6 p.m: $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors and $4.50 for children.
For more information or to purchase advance tickets, call 617-723-2500, TTY 617-589-0417 or visit www.mos.org.