Oceans

Great White Sharks make the best friends!
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2010
Director: 
Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud
Starring: 
Pierce Brosnan, ocean wildlife
The Setup: 
Documentary about ocean life, stunning footage, etc.
Discussion: 

So after three nights at home I MUST get out of the house. And of course I prefer to choose an activity which precludes contact with other human beings--not like anyone in New York City would talk to you anyway--and it's between Harry Brown and this. Harry Brown is an obvious follow-up to Get Carter with Michael Caine, but I might convince one of my friends to go to that, and this one promised stupefying ocean footage and the interest of certain moral ambiguities, which we'll get into. Anyway, everyone on IMDb was saying this MUST be seen on the big screen and... no one was saying that about Harry Brown.

Okay, so Disney nature documentary, right? No interest. Why see that. BUT, this one is by the French team that made the wonderful insect documentary Microcosmos [which had stupefying footage before stupefying footage was commonplace] and followed it a few years later with the bird documentary Winged Migration. So Disney bought the completed French film and edited it for American audiences. The French film was supposed to have much more content about the environment and how all is actually not that super with the oceans right now, and I was very interested to see how that came out [I would LOVE to see the French version to compare]. And also, now that we've had Planet Earth on BBC and nature documentaries with supefying footage have become commonplace, is there any point to seeing this thing in a theater anymore? So, these were the many questions going in, and... it turned out to provoke those questions, and many more!

OH, and by the way, as I watch this a ton of oil is streaming into the Gulf of Mexico, unabated, which was also in the back of my mind as I watched.

We begin with early forms of life, check out some horseshoe crabs, then some iguanas, and then the narration is talking about how something important happened that was a big schism in life on Earth... and the iguanas watch a space launch go up... and then we move on. So what the fuck was THAT about? I am betting this section is actually about the space impact that destroyed the dinosaurs... showing us a lizard watching a fireball go UP, instead of a giant lizard watching one come down. And you KNOW that there's no way Disney is going to tell its core customer [and their precious, impressionable tykes] that there is such a thing as EVOLUTION, so I think this is what we have, because nothing else makes sense. There were these old creatures, then there was a big schism in the development of life... and then a rocket went up? Huh? The narration goes notably fuzzy at this point... or fuzzier than usual, since the narration is the equivalent of a pink floral wallpaper. Vast, unending and senseless.

So I had been apprised that there were about ten jaw-dropping sequences [hyperbole strikes again] and now comes the only truly stupefying sequence in which, I must honestly say, my mouth was gaping open in astonishment. There's a school of sardines, which is quite an impressive sight in itself, a silvery cloud that swirls and changes direction in a split-second. Then there are dolphins swooping through the cloud, which divides and swirls around them, then like a bomb a diving bird crashes through the water and the cloud separates to get away. Then we see above the surface, where clouds of birds are pulling their wings in and shooting down into the water in great numbers. Then the sharks. Then the whales. Then a showstopper above-surface shot as the birds shoot into the water like torpedoes, dolphins and sharks slice just under the surface, then a spreading burst of silvery fish burst upward into the air, followed by the huge opening mouth of a whale. Okay, I am duly impressed.

This is soon followed by a tornado of grouper or some larger fish, then a "manta-shrimp" who doesn't like a crab too close to his lair, so he comes out and rips the bastard's claws off. I was thinking that this movie might downplay the eating, but we do see cute seals being snapped up by sharks and orcas, and one incident George Romero might be proud of, in which a fish is sliced cleanly in half by a swordfish. The fish swims bravely, seemingly unaware that half of its body is gone, until the swordfish swoops back and gobbles it up. But, this being Disney, there is a lot of attention paid to mother-child relationships and inclusion of footage in which wild mothers appear tender and doting like [certain] human mothers. And it's all quite pleasant to watch, and a compilation of ships in a storm is impressive near the end, but ultimately nothing else blew me away like the mass-feeding described earlier.

Okay, so on to the politics. I had expected that there wouldn't be too much attention paid to pollution and overfishing, but I didn't expect the narration to consistently imply that yeah, the ocean has some problems, but overall, everything is just fine and dandy. The narration is filled with all these vague statements that don't really make much sense when you try to discern what they are SAYING, but often follow a pattern where they allude to a problem, then vaguely suggest that it's no big deal. For example, they're showing baby sea turtles rushing to the sea, as all around them their siblings are being snatched up by diving birds. We see one make it, and the narration says "One in a thousand will reach the sea... enough to keep the species going." Um, okay, well maybe in a perfect world, but things aren't quite so clear-cut anymore. Then the narration says "One sign of the oceans' health is the appearance of aged fish," and then we see one, and then--another! Two old fish? [That's them above] Why, the oceans must be FINE then! The narration says "There are still unspoiled places where the sea is wide and clean." Doubtless true, but if MOST of them aren't it begins to seem like a lie of omission. After one of the few sections in which we see pollution, in this case pollutants running out of rivers, the narration says "Human indifference is the oceans' greatest threat... yet even now, animals thrive." So it's a series of vague statements following a pattern of "There are problems... but they're not serious."

Which is not to say that we don't see footage of turtles and whales caught in nets, a nasty patch of sea filled with debris, and that section of pollution running out of rivers. But the total of those moments amounts to five minutes at most of an 87-minute film. And they are usually accompanied by statements described above that imply that these problems are only minor inconveniences--like lint. Okay, so I can see that this is about life in the oceans, not a documentary on the problems of the ocean, but again, leaving out the fact that coral reefs are threatened worldwide and fishing stocks are down 94% from a century ago through overfishing begins to seem like a serious lie of omission. Coupled with the statements that the ocean's problems aren't really PROBLEMS, and one begins to wonder if Sarah Palin wrote this script.

The narration as a whole is mostly unnecessary anyway--although Disney is not exactly known for its avant-garde non-narrative artworks. The first movie by this team, Microcosmos, had very little narration, and was more successful for it. Especially as this version, as I've been saying, comprises this verbal white noise full of statements that seem to be insightful, but are actually just blank wallpaper. When not implying that the health of the oceans gets an A rather than an A+ [have to face the harsh realities], it's filled with "Maybe this... but maybe that" statements. Like "Maybe the ocean is impossible to fathom... but maybe the ocean is really within ourselves." The movie ends with the best one of all time--and here I'm cursing myself for recklessly throwing out my notes yesterday, so this is my best approximation of the actual words--but the film ends with a human diver swimming intimately alongside a Great White shark, as the narration says something like "The ocean can seem like a harsh place... but maybe when we look closer, our most-feared enemy might just be hiding a smile, a perfect companion for an afternoon swim." And at first you're like "Oh, yeah, maybe." And then you're like "Wait, what does that even MEAN?" And then you're like "Okay, so this movie is saying that Great White sharks are really big scaly teddy bears once you get to know them, and just want to hang out in peace and harmony? So this movie is saying that I should go out and swim with Great White sharks?"

Okay, so let's end with our Frequently-Asked Questions:

Q: What with things like Planet Earth on TV, is there really any reason to see this in the theater?
A: Not really.

Q: Does the movie paper over the serious problems the oceans face?
A: Not only that, but it implies through several word-twistings, worthy of the Bush administration, that the oceans are actually Juuuuuuust fine.

Yeah, that's about it. Oh, one more thing: It has a particularly horrid Disney teen-pop song over the end credits.

Should you watch it: 

It is pleasant to watch and has one or two jaw-dropping sequences, but so does any nature documentary these days.