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FILM REVIEW: "Tales Of The Maya Skies" opens Friday at the Fleet in Balboa Park

The countdown has begun.

The Maya calendar, which began in 3114 B.C., comes full circle on Dec. 21, 2012, the end of its (first) 5,000-year cycle.

Don’t panic. Nobody these days believes it will mean the end of the world; it’s thought of as the end of an era. But it is a nice coincidence that a new IMAX film called “Tales Of The Maya Skies,” opening on Nov. 9 at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Center’s Heikoff Theater, will be running on the big day.

The ancient Maya flourished in what are now Mexico and Central America, close to the equator. Maya civilization reached its peak between about 300 and 900 A.D.

They were an agrarian society with a talent for astronomy and mathematics, and made significant advances in both. They were the first to use the mathematical concept of zero and developed the world’s most accurate calendar.

“Tales Of The Maya Skies,” opening Friday at the Fleet's Heikoff Dome Theater, concentrates on Maya origin myths and their advances in astronomy and mathematics.

Latin Grammy Award-winner Lila Downs narrates and begins the tale in the ancient jungles of Mexico, with Maya creation mythology and the story of twins Hunahú and Xbalaqúe, ballplayers who found opponents in the underworld and who eventually became the sun and the moon.

The Maya built cities and temples in the jungle, aligning them with the movements of the sun, moon and planets. The film is set primarily at Chichén Itzá in the heart of the Yucatan, where over the years, as they observed astronomical phenomena, they learned to predict natural events such as the summer and winter solstices, weather patterns and planetary movements.

It’s a fascinating story, accompanied by the use of three-dimensional laser scanning and advanced computer generated graphics and accompanied by composer Michael Stearns’ fine soundtrack.

It seems a little odd that no mention is made of the fact that this advanced society suddenly disappeared in the ninth century – leaving only the buildings – for reasons we are still trying to understand. The best guess at the moment is drought.

But some seven million descendants of the Maya still live in the Americas and Europe, speaking 30 Mayan languages from different linguistic families. Many of the contemporary Maya could not understand each other in Mayan, though most of them also speak Spanish.

Though I prefer to see IMAX used to illustrate real phenomena (as in the “Flight Of The Butterflies” and “Deep Sea” shows currently in rotation at the Fleet) rather than as an animation tool, “Tales Of The Maya Skies” is a good introduction to the Maya.

The details

“Tales Of The Maya Skies” opens Nov. 9 in the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center’s Heikoff Dome Theater in San Diego's Balboa Park.