A road trip through the United States’ federally protected wide-open spaces takes viewers beyond the usual tourist sites in National Parks Adventure. Greg MacGillivray, a master of the giant-screen format, uses it to exhilarating effect as he and his hardy colleagues capture striking off-trail vistas. The film should inspire budding conservationists as well as their vacation-planning parents, and is sure to delight anyone who appreciates top-flight nature documentaries.
An outdoorsy trio serve as filmgoers’ (super-fit) proxies on the journey: mountaineer Conrad Anker (a central figure in last year’s powerful doc Meru); his stepson, photographer Max Lowe; and their friend, artist and climber Rachel Pohl. Of the 40 National Park Service sites that the filmmakers visited during a year of location shooting (there are 407 in total), the road-tripping protagonists take us on close encounters with a select few.
As climbers — world-class, in the case of Anker — they take risks that most tourists and day-trippers never will, and the intrepid crew, including aerial photography specialist Ron Goodman of SpaceCam, give us access to heart-stopping panoramas.
Prairie dogs and salmon-fishing brown bears get their impressive close-ups, but MacGillivray’s chief concern is the landscape, in all its variations. Using the bulky, ultra-sensitive Imax cameras in challenging circumstances that range from white-water rapids to raging fires, d.p. Brad Ohlund uses extreme close-ups and wide views to showcase an extraordinary geographical spectrum. The doc offers new perspectives on familiar marvels like California’s ancient redwoods and Yellowstone’s steaming geysers. In a highlight, the three adventurers discover the dreamlike splendor of a lesser-known park, Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There, in the depths of winter, they climb frozen waterfalls and explore a cave filled with delicate icicles.
The combination of 70mm and 3D immerses the viewer in those landscapes, and lets us share the kinetic thrills when the athletic trio mountain-bike on Utah sandstone or climb the “claw marks” of Wyoming’s iconic Devils Tower. A few upbeat song tracks urge them on, with Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and two versions of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” forming the doc’s twinned musical motifs, one rousing and one contemplative.
Whole chapters of the National Park Service’s decades-long inception are, by necessity, omitted from this tribute. There’s no shout-out, for example, to Carleton Watkins, whose photographs of Yosemite Valley had a profound influence on U.S. preservation policies. But Yosemite has a key role nonetheless, as screenwriters Stephen Judson and Tim Cahill effectively zero in on the 1903 camping trip of President Teddy Roosevelt and “fierce poet of nature” John Muir as a seminal moment in NPS history. A brief re-enactment, with Joseph Wiegand and Lee Stetson, respectively, portraying the two men, emphasizes their communion with the spectacular setting. It also touches on the solace that a grieving Roosevelt found in nature.
That theme of healing runs through the film, threaded lightly but affectingly through the dynamic action and stirring visuals. It’s in Anker and Lowe’s backstory, involving the death of Lowe’s climber father, and it’s in Robert Redford’s narration, which stresses the sacredness of the land, and certain locations in particular, for Native Americans.
The back-and-forth between the narration and the protagonists could be smoother at times, but the in-the-moment potency of the images and sense of discovery give this Adventure buoyancy and depth. And, as perhaps the final work to be shot chiefly on Imax film cameras, rather than digitally, it stands as something of a landmark in itself. For the Michigan sequence, MacGillivray tracked down the world’s last remaining stock of a special plastic-based film that withstands extreme cold. Whatever tech advances lie in store for filmmakers, his latest documentary is a testament to dauntlessness and vision.
Production companies: MacGillivray Freeman Films in association with Brand USA
Narrator: Robert Redford
With: Conrad Anker, Max Lowe, Rachel Pohl, Joseph Wiegand, Lee Stetson
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Screenwriters: Stephen Judson, Tim Cahill
Producer: Shaun MacGillivray
Executive producers: Tom Garzilli, Mike Day, Dave Duszynski
Director of photography: Brad Ohlund
Editors: Mark Fletcher, Jason E. Paul
Composer: Steve Wood
Not rated, 38 minutes