Like Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's excellent telling of America's conquest of space The Right Stuff, Microcosmos opens in the clouds. Here too the viewer is whisked away to a world real yet unfamiliar and fantastic. In essence Microcosmos is a documentary of insect life set for the most part in a meadow in Aveyron; a big screen version of Life on Earth if you will. But it's also much more than that. As one of its directors, Claude Nuridsany explains: "It's a return to science-fiction movies; the same exoticism, the same excitement in the face of the unknown. The difference lies in the fact that we show the wondrous truth, not the wonders conjured up in our imagination." Microcosmos is the result of 15 years of research, 2 years of designing (a computerized miniature robot was used to carry a camera) and finally 3 years of actually shooting its blissfully unaware stars. The filmmakers have been working as a team since 1969 developing new techniques of micro- and macro-photography to show that "what we regard as the most banal lifeforms on our planet are actually living in a fantastic realm."
The result has been evident in the publication of several award-winning nature books, a number of television shows, and now a feature film. The term is no misnomer either, for Microcosmos is often a gripping drama about "individuals struggling with the problems of daily life." This is most explicitly rendered in a scene of a beetle who in the process of transporting its ball of dung must negotiate a troublesome obstacle. Its triumph is likely to draw the sort of applause from around you normally elicited by only the best Arnie one-liners. At which point I should emphasise that Microcosmos must be seen in a cinema, and preferably one with a large screen for maximum impact. Reducing its Caesar award-winning 35mm cinematography to the size of television monitor will undoubtedly diminish the impact of the incredible close-ups, the time-lapse photography, the changes of scale, not to mention the enveloping effect caused by its deployment of natural sound and music. Admittedly Kristen Scott-Thomas's narration on the English version is redundant, and as the film passes the hour mark the lack of narrative may start to try one's patience, but considering the remarkable undertaking and stunning achievement that Microcosmos is, it seems churlish to quibble about too much of a good thing. This is a truly new empire to visit.