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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Fires of Kuwait

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly viewing of one of the many films in DVD/Blu-Ray/VHS library.  This week, after reminiscing a bit about Star Wars Identities, I tackled the legendary IMAX documentary Fires of Kuwait.  This entry is dated in my notes at February 3, 2013. 

Fires of Kuwait DVD Cover

If you're an avid reader of my blog,  you'll know that I recently went to Star Wars Identities at the Telus World of Science, and love it pieces.  However, at the Telus World of Science, it wasn't just Star Wars Identities I saw.  I've been planning a massive blog entry about my entire day at the Telus World of Science, but I've only got it about half-written in my notes so far.  So far, all I've posted is this brief collection of what I did.  And I made this YouTube video.  And I recorded a podcast about it.  But I have to write about my entire experience.  One additional experience I did after I saw Star Wars Identities was I saw an IMAX movie.

IMAX.  Long the crown jewel of many a science museum around the world.  Due to technical limitations, IMAX films can only be a maximum of 45 minutes long.  That, and the spectacular size of that massive, massive screen, makes it ideal for documentaries.  It's neat that Hollywood has finally embraced the IMAX format.  Several major blockbusters, such as Tron Legacy, Avatar, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, have filmed their major action sequences in IMAX.  Just the action sequences, though.  As Nolan shared in some interviews about The Dark Knight, the IMAX camera is noisy as hell, making it very impractical for filming quiet, character scenes.  So if you still want to see a movie filmed completely in IMAX from beginning to end, your local science museum is your best bet.

At the Telus World of Science, I saw a film called Coral Reef Adventure, all about the coral reefs in the south Pacific.  And it was a beautiful film.  And my plan of taking a day off in the middle of the week to avoid crowds worked a little too well, as I had the whole theatre to myself.  Ever have an IMAX theatre to yourself?  It's quite the experience.  But when I came home, I was still craving the IMAX experience, so I went to my DVD collection this afternoon and pulled out Fires of Kuwait.

Because of the uniqueness of the format, IMAX films were hard to come by on home media for quite some time.  But, with the advent of DVD in the late-1990s, IMAX figured the picture quality of DVD was good enough that they could release some of their films to DVD.  I know this because most people go nuts for their space documentaries, and thus they get a lot of coverage on the home media message boards.  I never felt compelled to pick up any IMAX films on DVD, because let's face it, thanks to that massive screen, they'd lose a lot on your little ol' TV.  But, a few years ago, when I saw Fires of Kuwait in a discount bin for $10, I figured "Why not?"

Now, as I've been scribbling down for that other blog entry, I always remember that, for the Telus World of Science marketing strategy, every once in a while, they get an IMAX documentary that they just promote the hell out of.  I remember Fires of Kuwait being such a film.  It holds the distinction of being the first IMAX film to be nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars.  And I remember my dad really, really wanted to see it, because he works in the oil patch, and he's always loved firefighters, and this combines the two.  So Fires of Kuwait led to one of those magical Saturdays at the Telus World of Science, but it was still the Edmonton Space and Science Centre back then.

Fires of Kuwait documents the mission to put out the Kuwait oil fires at the end of Operation: Desert Storm.  As they mention at the start of the documentary, in the closing days of the war, after Iraqi forces had been driven out and Kuwait was liberated, Saddam Hussein, as a final "screw you" to the people of Kuwait, ordered the detonation of over 700 oil wells.  Not only did this lead to considerable environmental damage, but it was a crippling blow to Kuwait's oil-based economy.  This led to an international effort - the largest mobilization of non-military personnel the world had ever seen, according to the documentary - to put out the fires.  It was predicted it would take between 5 and 10 years to put them all out.

Oil well fires are spectacular destructive forces.  Thanks to the constant stream of oil shooting out of the ground, they have a never-ending supply of fuel.  And the flames can shoot over 100 feet in the air.  Needless to say, the firefighters had a tough job ahead.

So we follow a firefighting crew as they take us through the standardized method of putting out a fire.  We then see some of the non-standardized methods, like the Canadian crew that had a special vehicle built to constantly circle a fire, shooting water on it.  We see the legendary Red Adair crew from the USA with their famous method of using explosives to put out the fire.  And, most memorable, a Hungarian crew that modified a tank...they mounted two jet engines on the turret, inject water into the mighty wind they kick up, and literally blow out the fire. 

I know my Dad was a little upset when we first saw the film, as he felt the Canadian crew got short shrift.  The Canadian crew was an outfit out of Calgary, regarded as the best oil firefighters in the Alberta Oil Patch and, if my Dad is to be believed, when all was said and done, they put out the most fires in Kuwait.  They even came up with the idea of cooling the ground so they could get closer to the fire...according to Dad, a revolutionary and simple idea that all the other crews adopted.

This being IMAX, the visuals are the big selling point.  There's lots of overhead shots of the devastated landscape...lots of scenes of oil-soaked desert oases.  But it's neat that it ends on an optimistic note, as it pans over one of those oases, and settles on a flower start to poke out through the muck.  And the coda says that, what they originally expected to take between 5 - 10 years, took only 9 months thanks to this international effort.

It's funny...watching this, and then remembering Coral Reef Adventure, I think I noticed a formula to IMAX documentaries.  There's no talking heads, like in a conventional documentary.  It's just the gigantic visuals, with the interview subject providing the narration.  I wonder if that has anything to do with the noisy camera issues that Christopher Nolan was talking about...or if they just know that the gigantic visuals are the big selling point of IMAX films, and gigantic close-ups of a person's face aren't really what people want to see.

All in all, it's a great film, documenting a horrible effect of war.  If I have one complaint, that would be this film was horribly transferred to DVD.  I'm just not talking shrinking it down to size, but it constantly seems out-of-focus on my TV.  I don't know what it is.  It's especially true during the end credits. 

So, yeah.  Your local science museum is still the best place to see these films. 

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