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'Volcanoes' is playing now on the Putnam Museum big screen

A scene from the movie "Volcanoes."

There was a time, long before computer-generated imagery, when I’d see an image in a film and wonder “How’d they do that?”

When I watched “Volcanoes,” I wondered “How’d they get that footage?” It is not exaggerating to say that this marvelous documentary provides some of the most breath-taking images you’ll ever see.

That’s not to say that all there isn’t some animation involved. After all, no one was around to film the scientific explanation of what happened about 4.5 billion years ago when the Earth collided with a smaller planet.

The theory goes that the impact created a molten Earth and, eventually, the volcanoes that continue to erupt today. Volcanic eruptions resulted in the islands and continents on the Earth, where, eventually, life forms began to in the ecosystems created in volcanic environments.

Those kinds of landscape still exist, and the movie shows how volcanoes contribute – and often threaten – the life around them.

Volcanoes are openings in the earth’s crust through which lava, volcanic ash and gases escape. Often, volcanoes are higher than their surroundings and contain various vents, craters and fissures.

Lava is magma that reaches the surface of the earth. When the lava cools and hardens over many eruptions, it forms a volcano.

National Geographic photographer Carsten Peter, apparently one of the most fearless people in the world, gets right to the brink of active volcanoes and churning lava.

The audience will see gorgeous scenes of wildlife that thrives in volcanic environments, from the plains of the Serengeti to the Congo and the mountain gorillas that dwell there.

You’ll also see remnants of the great Roman city of Pompeii, which the great Mount Vesuvius destroyed in 79 AD.

Most engaging of all are the sequences of Peter and his crew capturing images of the volcanoes. Peter’s specialty is filming in difficult (to say the least) situations. The gear that the crew wears and the landscapes give these sequences a science-fiction feel.

Many of the facts presented here surprised me, including this one: 700 million people live near one or more of our planet's 500 active volcanoes. Among these are the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii, Mt. Etna in Italy and Piton de la Fournaise on Reunion Island.

I almost forgot to mention an aspect of the film that makes it even more personal for viewers: You'll wear 3D glasses while you watch this, so you'll feel closer to every moment, whether it's looking down from the edge of a volcano or watching someone rappel down the side of a volcano.

You can almost feel the heat in every frame. And with the recent arrival of teeth-chattering cold, there isn't a better option to learn while you warm up.


Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Society of Professional Journalists, Broadcast Film Critics Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists member. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church.