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Eco-doc ‘Last Reef 3D’ warns of ocean peril

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Giant Screen Films presents a documentary directed by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas. Running time: 39 minutes. Rated G. Opening Friday at the Navy Pier IMAX.

Updated: February 19, 2013 1:48PM

‘The Last Reef 3D: Cities Beneath the Sea” transcends the usual IMAX nature films that target the family and field-trip crowd. Co-directors Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas follow up their “Wild Ocean 3D” (2008) with a nuanced immersion in coral reefs, “the largest living structures on the planet.” Polyps and algae construct these habitats for one-fourth of the ocean’s species. Over geological aeons, vast skeletal infrastructures emerge from the deep.

This eco-doc opens with newsreel footage of the Paris debut of the bikini on July 5, 1946. The swimsuit was named after the Bikini Atoll, site of a U.S. nuclear bomb test. On the soundtrack, Charles Trenet sings “La Mer” (“The Sea”), a French pop hit released that same year, to cue a montage of spectacular vistas.

The Bikini reefs managed to rebuild after decades, but other reefs worldwide are disappearing. The cause is carbon dioxide. Humans pump 761 tons into Earth’s atmosphere every second, and one third of that amount dissolves into oceans and turns seawater acidic. “Reefs are vanishing five times faster than rainforests,” warns narrator Jamie Lee.

“The Last Reef 3D” recalls the popular science shorts pioneered by French filmmaker Jean Painleve in the late ’20s. Besides magnifying the scale of tiny sea life, he drew parallels with people on land. Cresswell and Steve McNicholas do likewise with anemones, jellyfish, nudibranchs and slugs. They ask us to “think of the reef as a city beneath the sea.” A pulsing score syncs with shots of fish intercut with time-lapse imagery of city traffic.

What elevates “The Last Reef” is its closing look at human figures that sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor placed off the coasts of Be­lize and Mexico. Designed to facilitate new reefs, this underwater art offers a dire forecast for our species. Evoking citizens of Pompeii preserved in stone, Taylor memorializes a lost civilization, an allegorical Atlantis whose pollution melted ice caps and killed reefs.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance reviewer and writer.

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