There’s not much film-based information on Arabia for a Western audience, at least beyond the fantastical. Flying carpets and Ray Harryhausen features aside, this IMAX effort is intended to fill a gap, although it’s a gap wider than the 46-minutes afforded to this visual spectacle.
Arabia will follow student filmmaker Hamzah Jamjoob as he explores his native culture from its earliest golden age selling frankincense to the Romans to the present day where education reigns supreme. The format necessitates a speedy resolution, breezing by topics of women, the advance of technology, and the slowly unraveling ways of old as a new generation moves into the cities.
Most dominate is religion, clearly a point of contention for westerners, and a set piece for astounding visual superiority which the format readily provides. Aerial views of gatherings at Mecca are just astounding in their mass, millions gathered in perfect formation as they celebrate holy days. These are the most arresting images of the piece.
The rest is certainly not dedicated to its narrative craft, Arabia wandering as it makes footnotes before being passed around to the next point of interest. Helen Mirren is billed as the narrator, pushing ahead with probably six minutes of total line readings, the rest provided by Jamjoob. Guess his marquee value isn’t quit there yet to take up box real estate.
It takes three seconds. Three. Seconds. Arabia fires from its first frames, an underwater coral reef of such visual splendor, nearly every other disc on the market can take the day off. IMAX’s large format has created the ultimate documentary spectacle, and for all of the complaints about the educational value, it’s hard to blame anyone for salivating over the chance to shoot this stuff.
Arabia’s cities create miraculous HD images, buildings into the horizon lines visible and identifiable. Across the land’s vast deserts, rock formations stun with intricate crevices and texture. Clothing is monumentally crisp, and people resolved as perfectly as people can be. Those aerials of Mecca with millions mentioned above? Every single person is individualized. There’s no hiccup from Image’s provided AVC encode.
Colors are intensely bright, following in line with a hot contrast to simulate the usual climate. Earth tones are saturated and pleasing, cooler tones in a few nighttime views equally brilliant. City lights are backed by ludicrously rich black levels, and all remaining within the realm of natural images.
Digging… and digging… and digging to find something wrong here will reveal a sore spot for aliasing, and an instance of banding during a time lapse sunset. Some vintage stock footage will squeeze in for historical footage, and if you want to complain, the computer generated aspects make it look like it was shot in 1992. It was actually produced in 2010. That type of thing can’t sour the overwhelming magnificence elsewhere, Arabia a truly reference disc that speaks to the power of IMAX’s unparalleled visual fidelity.
Asa 3D disc, Arabia opens with an astonishing shot of a coral reef, pushing foreground and background elements to total, satisfying extremes. The same goes for a later dive into the heated waters in a search for sunken relics. When Arabia is flushed with 3D, depth charts a course to comfortable extremes, and its animated sections are lively.
However, only part of this feature is in 3D. The split is roughly 60/40 in favor of stereoscopic imagery. City and desert aerials offer no depth at all, and shots can differ between edits. Speaking of edits, many strain the eyes as they segue between shots, trying to balance formats or push 3D elements during fades. It is not a satisfactory solution.
There’s some dialogue here that seems to have been captured live, most IMAX features dubbing over everything as the camera noise overtakes the audio on location. You can readily tell from a loss of clarity, scratchiness souring the words and losing the natural air of recorded dialogue elsewhere.
Sound effects carry an artificial haze too for the same reasons, although at least it creates a sense of place and sonic presence. Fish whip around in the opening frames, traveling from one end of the soundfield to the other. Vehicles pan to the sides, and camels will travel behind the viewer. Desert winds blow and and sparks from a blacksmith’s shop will pan overhead. It’s all specifically placed and contained with a clear focus on keeping the material breathing, even if it’s clearly been punched up for the sake of it.
Constant music will slide into the rears, entire instrumental lines ditching the fronts for something a little more focused on immersion. The split is wide and heavy, arguably a little unnatural, but also a dazzler. Purists may throw a fit, and understandably so, while the end results will appease the casual viewer.
A making of, as these things always tend to be for IMAX features, is open and honest. There’s a passion that runs underneath these half-length pieces missing from most studio fare. MFF History is a shot seven-minute rundown on MacGillivray Freeman’s Laguna Beach productions. Nine trailers and BD-Live access is left over.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.
Note: This disc is part of the MacGillivary Freeman Limited Edition Gift Set, containing 10 of the IMAX features from their library. The Arabia disc in the set is identical to the stand-alone retail release.