RING OF FIRE IMAX feature captures Earth's awesome spectacles


FOR THE record, the Maryland Science Center denies any responsibility in the massive, tragically destructive eruption this month of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines. But talk about timing!

"Ring of Fire," a spectacular new film about volcanoes and earthquakes, is the latest attraction at the Science Center's big-screen IMAX theater. (It opens Saturday and continues through Dec. 13. For information, call 685-5225.)

Pinatubo is not mentioned, but it is clear from the film that the explosive Philippines volcano lies along the geographic feature that is the movie's title.

So called because of numerous previous volcano eruptions and earthquakes, the "ring of fire" is a seam in the world that roughly rings the circumference of the Pacific Ocean. Of the world's 600 active volcanoes -- a surprising number in itself -- about 75 percent lie along this line.

As the film shows in a computer-generated graphic of the world, the science of "plate tectonics" reveals our planet's outer surface is made of up of huge plates, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Where they meet, violent things sometimes occur.

In this country, results have included earthquakes, such as the San Francisco Bay area shake-up in Oct. 1989 that killed 67 people, and the 1980 blast that destroyed one-third of Mount St. Helens in Washington and replaced it with a 1,000-foot-high lava dome.

Both events happened just an eye-blink ago in geologic time, and "Ring of Fire" offers effective footage of each. Indeed, the producers (including the Science Museum of Minnesota, Museum Educational Productions Inc., the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Graphic Films Corp.) surely believed the San Francisco sequence would make the film especially timely.

The film builds toward the California quake particularly dramatically, with breathtaking wide-angle aerial shots of high-rise buildings combined with clapping fans in Candlestick Park and, at center-screen, a small rectangle where we see the familiar news footage of collapsing buildings, crushed vehicles and burning fires.

The Mount St. Helens' sequence is handled differently, with frame-by-frame still shots of the eruption as captured by photographer Gary Rosenquist, who talks about the stunning event.

Despite the awesome destruction, viewers are told, much life is returning to Mount St. Helens as nature rebuilds the area and scientists monitor events in hopes of learning how better to predict eruptions.

Yet it is swirling, splashing, gushing, smoking lava that provides the most spectacular scenes of "Ring of Fire," as photographed in some lesser-known areas of seismic activity.

For instance, a volcano called Navidad in the Andes mountains of southern Chile blew up on Christmas Day in 1988, and an IMAX crew was nearby to record scenes that barely made the evening news in this country. The area's remoteness limited the human toll.

In the cone of Hawaii's Kilauea, whose less spectacular but persistent eruption has been continuing for years, the camera hovers over a lake of molten material. Other sequences shot underwater show the steamy quenching of lava rivers at the sea's edge, and viewers are told "this is the newest land formed on Earth."

For all their destruction, the planet's pressure points also provide some benefits to its life forms. Snow monkeys with humanlike faces bask in the hot springs near Japan's On-take volcano, also known as Sakurajima, and people there get packed in hot volcanic mud. In Java, miners shorten their life spans to collect pure sulfur still forming from the Kawah Idjen volcano.

If "Ring of Fire" has a weakness, it is perhaps too much attention paid to the human efforts to make peace with and to memorialize Mother Earth's most violent moments. In Indonesia, we see dancers fancifully re-enact a battle with the King of Demons. In Java, we view a huge 1,200-year-old Buddhist monument to volcano Merapi. In Japan, the Fire Drummers of Sakurajima re-create the thunder of eruption.

But these puny efforts are easy to understand. We feel primitive and humble -- as well as the need for some divine mercy -- in the face of the awesome forces that "Ring of Fire" portrays.

"Ring of Fire" runs at the IMAX Theater at the Maryland Science Center's June 29 through Dec. 13. The center's summer hours are Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission to the exhibits, IMAX Theater and the Davis Planetarium is $7.50 for adults, $5.50 for students 4 to 17, military personnel and seniors. For more information, call 685-5225.

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