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Seeing the Earth Through Astronauts' Eyes


`BLUE PLANET'' is a cinematic dream-come-true for Earth lovers, tree huggers, travel bugs, and would-be astronauts. The I-Max movie - being shown across the country - offers spectacular views of a fragile home shared by billions. Seen on a gigantic dome Omni-Max screen 76-feet in diameter, four stories high - with views of 180 degrees that surround the tilted tiers of seats - this astonishing film turns your perception of the earth into something richer. Music and sound thunder from 84 speakers behind the screen. The movie reel weighs 180 pounds and requires two people to load it into the enormous movie projector.

At the Museum of Science here, the film is part of an environmental program called ``There's No Place Like Home' that includes the movie, a hands-on exhibit of rain forests, and a riveting planetarium show of the evolution of Earth's destruction.

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More than half the film for ``Blue Planet'' comes from footage taken on several space-shuttle missions - Atlantis, Discovery, Columbia - as well as the Apollo missions to the moon. Astronauts were trained to use special I-Max cameras that weigh 80 pounds on Earth, but nothing in space. From space, viewers see Earth in all its fragility and beauty, and watch weather systems move across entire continents and oceans.

Most important: viewers see the ``thin, blue line'' of atmosphere that separates life below from space above. This layer of atmosphere, one learns, traps enough heat to maintain life, unlike cold and barren Mars, which looms lifeless and frigid across the giant screen. The earth's layer also protects us from too much heat, like the 900-degree F. temperatures - enough to melt lead - on our neighbor, Venus.

Throughout, the movie shows the slow wearing away of the gasses that help sustain life.

There's a ``hole'' in the protective ozone layer at the South Pole, and we see it from space. Many scientists predict sunlight reaching through this hole will cause ice caps to melt, sea levels to rise, and weather patterns to change. This effect hurts flora, fauna, and Earth's five billion human inhabitants, from nomads in the Mohave desert to urban dwellers in rainy Seattle.

The film, which took three years to make, includes footage of hurricane Hugo ripping through South Carolina. For the first time in movie history, we watch an earthquake develop. A computer simulation impels viewers on an armrest-clutching roller-coaster ``ride'' through the mountains and valleys of California's San Andreas fault. It culminates in a rumbling and rupturing of ``plates'' - a simulated earthquake - that collapses highways and sends ambulance sirens screaming. Amazingly, the sequence is only 105 seconds long, although the original computation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the sequence was made, took eight months on three different computers, involving 42 gigabites of data, or over 9.3 million book-pages of text!

In a flash we are enclosed in a rainforest that echoes with trilling birds and screeching monkeys. ``The rainforest is home to half the species on earth,'' says the film's narrator, Toni Myers. A bulldozer revs its engine and chugs onto the scene. A frightened monkey clings to a tree. Hot flames billow and belch. ``One acre of tropical rain forest is destroyed every second. One hundred species are lost every day,'' she says.

``We can undo the damage we have caused,'' the narrator reassures us. But the movie ends there. Why doesn't this film offer solutions?

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``I wanted people to go out of the theater with an appreciation that it's everybody's task and everybody's home,'' says Ms. Myers, the film's writer, editor, and narrator, reached by phone in Toronto. ``You get an awful lot of the practical environmental messages from other media, really ... The function of this film was not to tell people specifically what they should be doing. I just wanted to make people aware that it was worthwhile doing, and why.''

Look at this astonishing film, and you may find yourself treading more lightly on the planet we call home.

Blue Planet is showing at I-Max and Omni-Max theatres in 21 North American cities. It will open in Chicago Feb.1; Denver Feb.15; Richmond, Va., Feb 15; and Edmonton, Alberta, March 22.

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