With the BP gusher in its eighth week, yesterday seemed like a good time to meditate on what we’re screwing up, so I checked out Oceans, Disney’s latest live-action postcard from Mother Earth. Directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud also brought us Winged Migration, and they get just as close to the underwater creatures here as they did to those birds, capturing some similarly dramatic and touching moments. But where Winged Migration’s story was almost as gripping as its images, detailing the challenges, perils, and sheer scale of migration, Oceans skips along the surface of its subjects’ lives like a stone bouncing across a lake.
The cinematography is impressive: The filmmakers get amazingly close to these animals, and the lighting approximates the feeling of natural light. A night sequence on an ocean floor that was supposedly shot by moonlight really looks as if it was, though there must have been additional lighting or we’d never see the action so clearly. And there’s some impressive action: In that scene, a shrimp emptying out its underwater cave is challenged by a crab and fights it to the death, and a fish that looks like a mossy boulder lies in wait until another fish pauses nearby, then gulps it down. In others, dolphin surf in huge breaking waves surely big enough to crush them and a mother walrus cradles her baby in the water, teaching him to swim.
But that’s as much drama as you get in what’s essentially a series of snapshots. A blue-and-gold ribbon eel undulates across the screen. Black-and-white eels, the top parts of their bodies sticking up out of holes in the sand, move together in what Pierce Brosnan’s nonstop voiceover describes as “a dance.” Yellow jellyfish swim by like pulsating parachutes. Giant schools of glittering sardines morph into different shapes in rapid succession—now a tornado funnel, now a beehive. The sea boils as a pod of whales leap out and fall back in. And my favorite, and what Brosnan informs us is one of the oldest species of fish, which looks like a salmon crossed with the elephant man, gawps at the camera with eerily human eyes.
It’s beautiful and sometimes awe-inspiring, but it doesn’t add up to a movie exactly, and the narration doesn’t help. In place of facts, we get passing references to dragons and unicorns and magicians, oh my. At one point, the voiceover rhapsodizes about how clearly you can hear the sounds of the creatures when you’re underwater, and I found myself wishing the filmmakers had just recorded those sounds and played them instead of an endless stream of Brosnan’s soothing platitudes scored by a predictably solemn/triumphal orchestra.
Oceans keeps dropping hints about how clueless we humans are. Two or three times it touches directly on the harm we’re doing, but those parts are handled glibly and over fast. I imagine they wanted to make the movie kid-friendly, but a little more information would have made this a much better movie. Instead of marveling at the creatures, I kept wondering things like: What does space exploration have to do with the oceans? Why does the narration keep referring to “the ocean” as if there were just one? Why does it call our oceans “the source of our greatest stories and legends” without offering a shred of evidence? Is that true? Why are those two armies of identical-looking crabs making one gigantic crustacean mosh pit? What are they up to, and why?
The main point of seeing movies like this in the theater is the added impact of playing on the big screen, but this one had me wishing I’d waited for the DVD so I could put it on mute. But even that might not have as much impact as I’d hoped.
When gorgeous close-ups of nature become just one more thing to consume, they also become impossible not to get numb to, just another brick in the wall between us and the natural world. Nature can even seem downright unnatural when we see it this way, so differently than we would ever encounter it ourselves. I found myself wondering if the filmmakers had used CGI to capture some of Oceans’s images of perfect-looking fish, and I saw a comment string on IMDb after watching the movie where someone else said the same thing. The assumption underlying movies like Oceans is that seeing nature’s magnificence and variety will inspire us to protect it, but I wonder if they’re more part of the problem than the solution.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.