Science fiction may take us into the vast unknown reaches of space, but there is a vast and unexplored alien landscape right here on Earth. Nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, although most humans are yet to explore what lies beneath. Yet those humans that have ventured under the briny blue have produced some of the most stunning documentaries and photography in the last half-century, from Jacques Cousteau’s influential Le Monde du Silence, through Luc Besson’s The Big Blue and Atlantis, to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. The question left for directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (Travelling Birds) was where could they possibly go next. Their simple answer was “everywhere”.
Narrated by Pierce Brosnan (The Ghost Writer), Oceans attempts to answer the question “What is the Ocean?” through images and emotions. Shot over four years in all the oceans of the world, the documentary discreetly and intimately follows sea creatures both familiar and wholly alien, reveal a world that is beautiful, fraught with danger and is in its own threatened fragile state of danger. Coupled with a timely message on the importance of keeping our planet safe, the film is a narrative on the very nature of one of the most powerful forces on Earth.
Oceans is, quite simply, one of the most breathtaking pieces of visual storytelling that has emerged in recent memory. Utlising state-of-the-art underwater digital photography, and plain old 35 mm film for stunning exterior shots, the French filmmakers provide a level of detail that is all too rarely seen on the big screen. There are, of course, incredibly familiar elements to the film, with the extended pieces on penguins and birds swooping to catch fish emerging from an already saturated market on the subject. As a result, the film does not confine itself to these handful of undersea critters, but rather features over 90 different types of creature in the film, including the ‘winged’ Oriental flying gurnard, the etheric blanket octopus, the Jellyfish Echizen, the alien-looking giant cuttlefish and Stellar’s Sea Cow, snuffling the ocean floor like a giant manatee. A crab battle on the ocean floor provides a surprising action sequence, and the anthropomorphisation of many of the creatures provides a surprising amount of comedy. Coupled with Bruno Coulais’ (Babies, Coraline) score, even those familiar elements are elevated to a grand operatic vision, and it is difficult to not feel at least a little bit moved by the visual poetry.
Unlike the recent trend towards non-narrative documentary storytelling, including Thomas Balmès Babies or Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, Oceans has a very strong voice and an even stronger message. The voice, provided by ex-Bond Brosnan, can be a little bit patronising at times. The emotive and clumsily poetic language with which he describes what we are seeing is perhaps too overbearing, although the ocean is indeed a powerful force. (Incidentally, the French version appear to run at least 15 minutes longer with the original narration from Jacques Perrin). Rather it is the visuals that speak a thousand words. However, there is a method in this emotive madness. The principle purpose of the film is not to educate or inform, as a typical BBC or National Geographic documentary might intend to do, but rather create this sense of longing emotion. Whether you’ve seen dozens or a handful of oceanic documentaries over the years, it is unlikely that the documentary will not speak to you on some level. Oceans is a call to arms for the human race: if we are touched by anything we are seeing on-screen, then we cannot afford to let it slip away.
Literally and figuratively, as well as physically and spiritually, the sea is a force to be reckoned with. Many films have pondered this universal truth, with monster movies (Jaws), disaster dramas (The Poseidon Adventure), quirky comedies (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) and even contemplative romances (Angèle And Tony) tackling the topic in the fictional realm. Yet, despite the fascination narrative filmmakers have shown for the subject in everything from The Battleship Potemkin to Lifeboat, White Squall to Waterworld, and Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World to the Pirates Of The Caribbean series, documentaries have provided the most pertinent probing of the subaqueous society, as Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s Oceans aptly illustrates. A meditative journey through the magic and the mystery that lurks beneath the waves, the transformative and transcendent effort asks audiences to marvel at the miraculous mixture of matter and energy that comprises the majority of the planet, as well as the magnificent marine life that inhabits its waters.
From the first question posed by Pierce Brosnan’s narration, to the final striking shot of the big blue that posits an answer in response, Oceans is a masterful achievement. During the 85 minutes in between, the film delves into the depths of the sea to discover a vast array of activity, with events below the surface bearing significant parallels to those up above. As the tuneful tones of the former James Bond inform and describe in increasingly emotive language, the meticulous gaze of the camera explores the rhythm of the creatures of the deep, capturing plankton and dolphins, penguins and dugongs, seals and sea-lions, sharks and sea gulls, and every other type of marine mammal and aquatic animal in between. The frenzy of scuttling, scampering, swimming and swishing that unravels offers an abundance of colour, shape and movement, as well as resonance, grace and meaning, just as any depiction of the deep should. Accordingly, it is impossible not to be amazed and mesmerised in equal measures, with the stunning cinematography simply breathtaking whilst imparting a meditation upon oceanic existentialism in accompaniment. A portrait of the power and poignancy of the underwater world that is on par with the best in the business, Oceans is, like its subject, awash with beauty and brilliance.
Oceans was released on 26 May 2011 in Australia by Hopscotch Films.