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The ratings system has its inconsistencies, but, after reading a synopsis of Microcosmos, you'd have to wonder just what the MPAA was thinking. This French import is rated G, despite more on-screen violence than all three Die Hards put together. Murders, accidental deaths, mortal combats, cannibalism and attempted genocide are all crammed into an hour and a quarter of screen time. (There's also full nudity and explicit fornication.)

Of course, we can assume that the ratings board put aside its usual formula in this case, because the cast of Microcosmos, both victims and perpetrators, are all bugs, acting out their programmed roles in the savage biosystem. Given their lowly place in the terran pecking order, it's hard to imagine that even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would find the content objectionable. (And, no, there's no disclaimer at the end about "no animals being harmed.")

Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou spent two decades preparing this look at the life and habits of the smallest creatures visible to the naked eye. According to the press notes, it took 15 years of research, two years of designing the equipment, three years of shooting, six months of editing. The result is much like the average TV nature documentary, except infinitely better shot and edited.

On a purely visceral level, what the documentarians show us here is an extraordinary technical achievement. Given the sumptuousness of the visuals, it is wise that they have chosen to avoid narration; there is nothing more than a very brief voice-over intro. Editing years of footage together to represent one day in the life of the tiniest creatures of one small meadow, Nuridsany and Perennou have organized the material as a series of vignettes, centering on a succession of remarkable-looking beetles, moths, caterpillars, ants and spiders.

Their unobtrusive approach does have a major drawback. Except at the most action-packed moments, this cavalcade of nature is so, well, pastoral, so tranquil and pacific, that it occasionally verges on the soporific. If ever there was a movie that is both engrossing and yet sleep-inducing, this is it. The soundtrack has some music, but, for long stretches, it contains nothing but amplified nature sounds -- exactly like those ambient tapes designed to counteract insomnia. You're watching an ant struggle to move a (relatively) huge object across a few feet of earth, and you're thinking how fascinating it is and how funny and poignant at the same time, and suddenly you're flying over downtown Kuala Lampur with no trousers on, talking to your dead grandfather about J. Carroll Naish's performance in an old episode of Life with Luigi -- and then there's a crash of thunder and you wake up.

I'm not kidding: Microcosmos is terrific, but given its calming effect, you might want to fortify yourself with java first, just to play it safe.

Microcosmos.
Directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou. With bugs ... and yet more bugs.

Rated G.
76 minutes.

 
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