" It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Seems like only yesterday I was thinking to myself, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And from what I’ve seen in Shapes of the Invisible, there may be more things on the head of a pin as well.

Fantastic Voyages

Art and science meet halfway
Art and science meet halfway

A pin’s head is not one of the 22 things that are investigated very close-up and personal in this... well, I’m reluctant to say film, or a documentary ... in fact, I’m not sure what to call it. Shapes of the Invisible is 22 very repetitive microscopic to sub-microscopic journeys to the surface of (and sometimes inside) everyday objects. Each journey is a wonder. It’s the sum of the parts that’s got me puzzled.

Individually every little excursion is fascinating and it works like this: images of various resolutions, made with different kinds of equipment, are overlaid. Then, using image processing software, surprisingly smooth and convincing transitions are made from one level of resolution to the next, the effect being a seamless zoom into close-up. The viewer sees an ever expanding level of detail from a fixed POV though there are a few tracking shots that are quite nice. In the lower right hand corner of the frame, a number shows the amount of magnification, with the digits spinning faster the closer we get to the limits of resolving power.

A Short Strange Trip

Each trip begins with a simple view of an everyday object. As the narrator says; ‘here we have an ordinary clay bowl’. We look closer to examine the clay of the bowl and see an ever expanding landscape that looks less and less like the bowl and more like an alien world. The smooth surface of the bowl becomes one marred with irregularities that then become peaks and valleys. All the while the narrator acts as a tour guide pointing out the sights as we dive into the surface of the bowl.

Clay, we discover, is actually composed of fibers and those fibers in turn are made up of even smaller barbed fibers which are made up of bundles of yet even smaller strands of material. Perhaps this is not what you expected clay to look like. The big zoom ends with layers of oxygen, silicium (silicon), and aluminum atoms stacked in rows and columns and here we are told, we can go no further.

The true nature of the material is shown to be much different that its ordinary appearance. Shiny metal is pitted with irregularities and impurities, smooth plastic is really and ocean of frozen balls nested like Russian dolls and a fish’s scales are collagen in a state half way between liquid and crystal. It is all very strange, isn’t it Horatio?

The Big Picture

What’s lacking is some kind of structure to hold each voyage to the next. If it wasn’t for the obvious scientific content, the whole thing might be confused with some kind of obscurist art film meant to be endured as much as watched. The hypnotic repetitions can and will lull you to sleep.

This is no slapdash affair. The production values are very high and it seems to have been made by people with a passion for what they do. The narrator speaks in flawless BBC English with the unmistakable tone of low-fat high-fiber Educational TV. The camerawork is flawless and, in many ways, the star of the show. And the vistas seen along the way are amazing.

The trouble is that each excursion into the microcosm begins the same way, is narrated in the same manner, and ends with the same conclusion. Often, the excursions begin and end with the exactly the same phrase: “To the naked eye this is just an ordinary...” and at the end of the ride “... beyond this nothing more is visible... for now.” (That ‘for now’ part is a good touch though because it leaves the door to The Great Unknown open to inquiring minds. Too bad it’s used too often without any greater purpose.)

They Should Have Sent a Poet

Shapes puts me in mind of Powers of 10 or Cosmic Zoom but given the intervening years and better equipment, the zoom in Shapes is a smoother ride. However, there’s just something missing here, perhaps a bridge between the sciences and the humanities.

If you make Shapes of the Invisible better art, it cheapens the science. If you make it strict science, it sucks the life out of it. I think Shapes, as it is right now, would be something you’d expect to see shown in your old science class. I see the poets in the classroom quietly pounding their heads against their desks waiting for this interminable torture to end. At the same time I can also see the junior scientists eyes popping out while they fall rapturously forward into the depths of a bike’s carbon fiber handlebar stem.

The fact is that any artist worth his paint (or scientist worth her protons) knows the world is an amazing place; and although Shapes of the Invisible doesn’t bridge the gap between the two camps, it’s a fair piece of work in sharing that wonder. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the ride. (This is often my advice.)

If the task of fixing this whatever-it-is were dropped in my lap, I’m not sure what I’d do. One thought might be to include the ‘extra making-of featurette’ as part of the film. This is every bit as interesting as the resulting footage and does put a human touch behind the source of the images. If you view this DVD, be sure to watch it.

Maybe a repeated theme needs to compare “the atoms stacked up in regular columns” in one zoom to the atoms in the next arrangement, so that some general statement can be made about atoms. I don’t know whether that will light many fires under my fellow fine arts majors, but at least it would be a start to making some kind of sense out of all the fine work done in Shapes of the Invisible.

DVD Extras

The only extra feature is the Making-of featurette.

Picture and Sound

Both picture and sound are very good, though the choice of the particular sound effects — a sort of windy whooshing — is curious. I suspect that music was nixed because it would soften and or distract from the science.