Howard Hall, 2006, USA, 40 mins
Narration: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet
Review by Mike Bartlett
Legend has it that when the Lumiere brothers first showed their film of a train arriving at a station, startled spectators jumped from their seats, assuming that it was going to hit them. There is a modern equivalent to this sensation – the IMAX 3D experience. So close seem the objects on screen that the children who reach up to grab them don’t seem foolish, but merely victims of an understandable curiosity. And at the screening of Deep Sea I attended, after the first shot of a wave bearing down on the audience, a little boy cried, “Daddy, I nearly got wet!”
IMAX is, indeed, a bizarre alternative to normal moviegoing. One enters the auditorium to find a battalion of sprawling families and rowdy kids banked up on a steep rampart of seats. Bearing down on them is an enormous screen, truly extending beyond the scope of vision, and behind it IMAX’s secret weapon – a set of gigantic speakers. What ensues is an extraordinary sensual barrage of pin-sharp imagery and crystal-clear sound.
For the subject of deep sea exploration and marine life, it’s an ideal medium. At this size, the viewer can almost feel the texture and dimensions of each animal brought before them. The filmmakers deliberately chose animals that would benefit from the 3D effect – octopi, squid, starfish – and it’s true that, not even from the best small-screen show, could one gain such an appreciation of their graceful movement through water. The sequences where prey is being hunted become hair-raising and suspenseful as we feel the gap closing in three dimensions between predator and quarry. Throughout, the cameramen manage to frame the undersea drama with an almost Ophulsian sense of foreground, capturing attacks from camouflaged creatures with particular success. Added to the overall effect are some clever, if gruesome, sound effects – the crunch-crunch of the wolf eel eating a sea urchin being the most memorable.
Where TV documentaries can score over IMAX is in their ability to weave a more complex story from their material. The big screen demands spectacle and wonder, but this means discussion of the appalling environmental damage to our oceans – 90% of the big fish have been killed or removed – is passed over in a matter of seconds. The commentary sometimes feels a little awkward, with the ghost of “intelligent design” theory haunting this film as it did March Of The Penguins. There’s also a very American insistence on the idea of a community of disparate species pulling together – the fish are even referred to as citizens! And this also means that a great deal of time is given over to the best example of this submarine republicanism – the “cleaning stations”, where larger animals have their skins picked clean by schools of attendants. Happily, these sequences – especially the ones involving the green sea turtles – are the most beautiful in the film.
IMAX cinema may fall short as a vehicle for cogent, in-depth arguments, then, but it does have a massive educational potential in its imagery alone. If only in the area of immediate, tactile experience, of appreciating the nature of undersea life, Deep Sea 3D is leagues ahead of the competition. As producer Toni Myers has observed, the film is not meant to be a lesson so much as an inspiration to future biologists and oceanographers. In that respect, it deserves to be a success. Take the plunge!
Discuss this film here