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Glorious Sea 

Brosnan's narration can't mar Deep Blue's gorgeous ocean footage

Wednesday, Jun 15 2005
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What Winged Migration was to birds, Deep Blue is to the ocean -- a breathtaking nature documentary cheapened slightly by melodramatic voice-over. In an opening that swells with import, Pierce Brosnan speaks in worshipful tones, informing us that our planet is a blue planet, with far more ocean than land. This fact shouldn't surprise anyone, nor should his later revelation that "Storm and rain and wind and cloud churn the seas with their own power." The aim appears to be poetry, though understatement would better suit the genre.

But it doesn't much matter. For all of its turgid self-importance, its anthropocentric theater of classical music and sound effects, Deep Blue is a gorgeous film with scene after scene of incredible footage. Who cares if it doesn't quite have a focus ("the sea" seems awfully broad) and if the writing got a bit out of hand? The point is the footage, and the footage is here.

We open on dolphins. They rise and leap, slice into the water and fall back against it, seemingly in midlaugh. Later, we return, as one group performs giddy triple and quadruple axels, spinning on their spinal axes as they arc. Can this be anything but joy? Director Alastair Fothergill seems to acknowledge what we all already know: that dolphins are the finest creatures on Earth, the smartest and the happiest, and that the best we can do is admire their grandeur.

From there the action moves to a tiny island, where half a million albatrosses jostle for space to breed in what may be the largest orgy ever recorded. Dip below the surface, and thousands upon thousands of sardines undulate in pulsing schools. "A feeding frenzy ensues." Then it's off to the penguins, whose plight has been widely publicized elsewhere. At breeding time, also known as winter, they walk 100 miles south, when other species are heading north for warmth. There, the males fast ("starve," according to Brosnan) for over three months as they protect their young, enduring temperatures down to 70 degrees below zero and winds of up to 100 miles per hour. As they shuffle across the ice, the penguins are hysterically funny -- such proper clowns, like little Charlie Chaplins -- and then they're terrifically sad, huddled and braced against the weather.

Deep Blue's villains are the orcas, the stunning black-and-white killer whales of movie fame. First, a pair are seen attacking a family of sea lion pups, rising out of the shallow waves near the shore and snapping the wriggling young in their powerful jaws. The whales beat the lion pups against the water and the sand, presumably to kill them. Later, in arctic waters where a 30-ton gray whale has migrated with her calf in search of food, we see the menacing profiles of another orca pair. No, they wouldn't. But they do: For six hours, they hound the calf until it exhausts, succumbing. Moments later, a rush of red rises to the surface.

Deep Blue is full of powerful footage, but its finest segment is also probably its darkest. Down, down, down the camera plunges, to the stomach-dropping depths of the ocean floor, a lonely light shining below. At 15,000 feet, we skirt the Marianas Trench, which (gulp) drops another seven miles below the ocean floor. There's an astonishing bounty of life down there, beyond the sun's reach. Many of the creatures are lit to the gills, pulsing neon up and down their ... tentacles? While their transparent skin makes much of these deep-dwellers' physiology visible, it's often hard to say exactly what we're seeing. Is that bulbous, veined thing a lung? It can't be a lung. But it looks like a lung!

Brosnan closes with a sobering thought: "Will we exhaust [the ocean's] resources before understanding all its wonders?" First of all, yes. The ocean seems far too vast and mysterious for us to ever understand all of its wonders, no matter how quickly we're killing the planet. A more immediate question is whether the movie needs this final note of doom. Nothing else in Deep Blue hints at environmental degradation, and that is rather a relief. The point is to glory in the ocean's wonders, not to despair over its decline. On the other hand, Deep Blue would seem to provide exactly the kind of educational opportunity required to turn things around. Shouldn't everyone who watches this natural glory -- assembled from 20 cameras in 200 locations and edited from a mind-blowing 7,000 hours of footage -- be reminded that its survival is in our hands?

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Melissa Levine

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