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Film review: Microcosmos

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 10 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

With all respect to "Independence Day," "Star Trek: First Contact" and the upcoming "Mars Attacks!" the most alien looking landscape seen in movies this year has got to be the French countryside shown in "Microcosmos."

In the documentary, biologists-cum-directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou turned their cameras on France's Aveyron region, which contains a good variety of climates, such as a small forest and pond. But what makes the duo's look at Aveyron and its inhabitants so stupendous is that they shot most of it at ground level and on a microscopic scale, all to capture some very unreal looking moments in the insect world.

The end result is a breathtakingly beautiful look at a variety of insect, arachnid, mollusc and bird species, all of which live in this single environment.

For instance, a small pond looks more like an ocean - complete with colorful but odd looking mosquito species and a spider that eats its meal underwater - while some parched land appears to be a desert teeming with anthills.

The idea here is that more happens in one day for the world's tiny animal species than you would ever imagine (although it was actually shot over three years' time). And it has to, since insects have much more limited life spans than humans do.

Although there's little here in the way of dialogue (although actress Kristin Scott Thomas offers a brief introduction and prologue), there's more character development - and more sheer humor and drama as well - here than in most of the year's blockbusters combined.

You probably won't see another love scene as passionate (or as slimy) as the film's snail mating sequence, nor will you see a scene as frustrating, and nearly heartbreaking, as the one involving an overmatched dung beetle who tries to roll a large ball of sheep droppings up a hill - a hill that would be little more than a sidewalk crack to a human but might as well be a mountain to the tiny insect protagonist.

Elsewhere, a group of caterpillars forms a wagon train several feet long in order to explore new terrain, while two ants share a single drop of water in a scene that recalls the spaghetti dinner sequence from "The Lady & The Tramp."

Nuridsany and Perennou obviously love the subject matter, and the results show it. The two spent 15 years researching their subjects, two years designing the lights and cameras used (including small, remote-controlled helicopters for the aerial shots) and six months of editing, on top of the sometimes frustrating shooting schedule.

It also should be noted that the production captures many of the natural sounds of the animals. For instance, a swarm of young wasps sounds eerily like World War II bombers, and the terrifying pecking of a bird as it feasts on ants would do Hitchcock proud.

The two did play God at times to capture certain images, such as supplying the dung beetle with its payload and bringing in some insects from other countries. But the result is so entrancing that it's easily forgivable.

"Microcosmos" is rated G but does contain some scenes of insects clashing and some mating activities, including the amorous bit involving the snails.

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