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BMZ Review: Journey into Amazing Caves
By Elizabeth Kaye McCall


Amazing Caves: An A+ Adventure
Written by: Elizabeth Kaye McCall
Source: Freelance
Date: July 2001


Category: Reviews

Were someone to make up a plot about a young, female English-born scientist involved in a research offensive against drug-resistant tuberculosis, who literally hangs out with her 98-pound Montessori school teacher's assistant pal from Georgia, rappelling 300 feet off a vertical cliff in Arizona's Little Colorado River Gorge on a 112 degree day, before swinging into a four-million-year-old virgin cave hundreds of feet above the ground "in search of extremophiles", the concept might seem more than a little over the top.
And that's before they fly to Greenland for a shot at glacial ice caving (more extremophiles and blue ice!), then wind up in the Yucatan where one braves cave diving, in search of an elusive saltwater-meets-fresh-water zone called the "halocline".  Meanwhile, the teacher reports to class with exploration updates via the Internet.  But far from fiction, Journey Into Amazing Caves is the film equivalent of halocline, with the shimmering interface in this case consisting of adventure, two daring, athletic women, and the perilous world of caving, made ever so mystical by Moody Blues music (including two new songs, "Water" and "We Can Fly").

One of the world's fastest growing extreme sports, caving also involves rigorous scientific pursuits such as finding undiscovered life forms like "extremophiles" (microorganisms that survive in extreme environments) which may lead to medical breakthroughs and new generations of antibiotics.  Approached through the rich character portrayals of microbiologist Hazel Barton, Ph.D (now a researcher at University of Colorado) and Nancy Aulenbach, a noted National Cave Rescue Instructor, cave ecologist, and cave conservationist (in addition to the Montessori job), Amazing Caves leaps into its captivating story from the start when the two dangle off the Arizona cliff equipped only with harnesses, ropes, and headlamps.

While Irish-born actor Liam Neeson officially narrates, the dialogue is soon largely in Aulenbach's engaging Southern drawl.  You're on a first-name basis with Hazel and Nancy from their first words, "the most dangerous part of exploring caves is just getting to them."  By the time they embark on subsequent exploits, you're enmeshed in the passion that sends both beneath the earth's surface time and again.

Director Stephen Judson describes Amazing Caves as one of the most complex shoots ever accomplished by veteran MacGillivray Freeman Films, which has 25 large format productions to date including To Fly and Everest.   When Hazel and Nancy joined an Arctic expedition to an ice cave with a French team in Greenland, temperatures were 25 below and winds exceeded 100 miles an hour.  With huge unstable blocks of ice weighing hundreds of tons that can easily be dislodged, the descent into a moulin, (sliver-thin ice shaft) was not just precarious for the cavers, but required a constant convoy of lens cases and film magazines sent down one-by-one from a gasoline-powered winch anchored in the ice cap to expert caving cinematographer Gordon Brown.   At one point, Brown plummeted on a line with the camera, slamming into an ice wall.
When head French caver Janot Lamberton (a joint world-record holder for ice cave descent depths) becomes so concerned about the ice's stability that he alone descends to more than 500 feet, you truly appreciate Brown's talent in nailing the shot.  Lamberton lowers like a human pendulum to  (successfully) collect a centuries-old ice sample for Hazel's research.

As for our intreprid microbiologist, she subsequently challenges another of the riskiest of adventure sports, cave diving (which has claimed hundreds of lives in its brief history). The two women arrive next at Dos Ojos, the world's third largest known underwater cave, located near Tulum, Mexico.  The risk level is emphasized when Nancy (who's been inducted in the Explorers Club, a prestigious international organization with names like Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, and Sir Edmund Hilary) declines this descent and remains above water because of friends who died while cave diving.
It's hard not to wish Hazel stayed above too as she unbelievably detaches her air tanks, pushing them ahead to access a tight passage underwater, then follows, disappearing in a flutter of fins.  After all that and a dead end, she makes another dive.  But this trip brings the Mother Lode:  an encounter with the halocline.  "Anything living here is extremophile," Hazel remarks.  And thanks to the talents of two top underwater photographers the mirage-like shimmering phenomenon halocline was captured for the first time on large-format film.

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BMZ Guidelines:  A mesmerizing subject, award-worthy cinematography, excellent script, and the up-close human element of Dr. Hazel Barton and Nancy Aulenbach, make Journey Into Amazing Caves a must see.   Need further enticement?  Magical music by the Moody Blues confirms why large format films are unbeatable when all the elements click.   One caution:  no impulse caving.  Contact the National Speleological Society ( for an experienced guide and safety tips.

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