The world of insects in close-up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 1997, 12:00am

MICROCOSMOS Starring Assorted Insects. Directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou. Category I. Opens June 26 at Broadway and UA (Sha Tin, Queensway, Whampoa) It is a case of the bug versus the beast. In a prime example of creative marketing, Edko Films are going head-to-head with Steven Spielberg's The Lost World by releasing this micro-documentary about insects at the same time as the dino-epic.

Although the assorted bugs can never compete with Spielberg's digital dinos, Microcosmos does have wider appeal than most nature documentaries. Made by French biologists Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, and benefiting from two years of preparation and a further three in shooting, the 77-minute film takes the viewer down to grass level to present an insect's-eye view of the world and each other.

Some new camera technology, invented by the film-makers themselves, gets so close to the various insects on show that they cease to become forgettable bugs and fill the screen as resplendent creatures in their own right, taking on human personalities.

Consequently, some new - and unlikely - movie stars hit the screen for the first time: a tenacious scarab beetle struggling with a ball of dung, a ladybird taking wing, a cohort of caterpillars, the water-loving argyronet spider, and a number of others. After taking us down from the skies into the grass (the French title is The Grass People ), the directors present the animals doing their thing in glorious close-up, to a musical score that veers from wishy-washy new age atmospheric to full-scale opera.

If it sounds boring, it isn't - and it's miles away from the usual educational documentary. For a start, there's no informative voice-over giving us the facts and figures about the various species: we simply watch them performing one or two actions in extreme close-up.

The insect actors fill the screen, and, thus enlarged, lose all of their unpleasant appearances: this big, every one of them looks beautiful. What's more, we interpret their various tics and gesticulations as we would a human actor.

Of course, projecting personalities on to animals is hardly new. Every child does it with picture-books and toys, and Disney has made a fortune out of the idea.

But there is still an unusual thrill out of, say, seeing two horned stag beetles fight with so much panache and vigour they look like they're rehearsing for the lead roles in Spartacus.

Another highlight is the hordes of caterpillars who make shape after shape as they move, as if trying to mimic a painting by Mondrian. The scarab beetle, meanwhile, struggles to roll up its dung pile in an extract that brings the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus - in which a man was destined to continually roll a ball up a hill only to watch it fall down again - to life. Whereas most documentaries often attempt to be objective, Microcosmos had this idea of the, er, 'pathetic insect fallacy' in mind from the start. 'As any other species, they are living beings confronted every day with the difficulties of destiny and in search of their place in the sun,' say the directors. 'This is why we wanted to show them as human beings.' Also, most documentaries purport to catch their subjects unawares in the wild, although recent revelations by eminent nature documentarists have, in fact, revealed that many so-called candid scenes were set up. The directors of Microcosmos are upfront about this, and weren't afraid to coax performances out of their cast. 'Insects only perform in a certain way if they're in a favourable environment,' they say, and all the insects were encouraged to perform acts before the cameras.

It's not that anything is faked, simply that the cameras provided an extra element into the insect world that stopped them acting naturally. The resulting footage is surprisingly slick, with every insect performing as if on cue - one reason why the film is being marketed more as entertainment than an educational piece.

Hong Kong viewers are being treated to a slightly different version to other countries. After the preview, the distributor thought that the movie might be a little slow for Hong Kong audiences. They have consequently added an English and Cantonese-language voice-over, which adds a plot to the film. One hopes this will not deter viewers from using their own imaginations. I found the movie far from slow, but perhaps a little too long.

One of the effects of looking at these giant visions is that it makes many human-designed screen monsters look fairly redundant. The head-snapping killer mutant in Peter Hyams' The Relic, for instance, has nothing so elegant and strong about it as the bellicose stag beetles have. Perhaps Microcosmos will inspire some Hollywood special-effects designers to rent out some entomology textbooks.