Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dolphins and Whales: Grave danger

Dolphins and Whales (2009) • View trailer for Dolphins and Whales
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.22.09

The 3D photography in Dolphins and Whales is spectacular  a word I don't use lightly  and certainly worth the price of admission.

Director of photography Gavin McKinney and his crew of IMAX cameramen spent three years and 600 hours under water in regions all over the world  from Argentina and the Bahamas to Australia, French Polynesia and the kingdom of Tonga  in order to obtain the necessary footage of this film's 12 ocean stars. The shoot was directed by Jean-Jacques Mantello, who then edited the resulting 100 hours of footage into the 42-minute film now in release at giant-screen IMAX theaters across the country.
Behind-the-scenes shots of underwater cinematographer Gavin McKinney might
have been useful in Dolphins and Whales, particularly to give context to the
enormous size of some of the creatures profiled in this documentary.

Obtaining the footage itself obviously required physical stamina and a degree of patience most of us couldn't even quantify. But editing all that raw film must've been painstaking in its own way, because of course every minute of the original exposed footage contained its own special magic, and caught these undersea creatures in some unique manner. Making such choices must have been excruciating.

I only wish the final result were a bit more viewer-friendly.

Dolphins and Whales is unlike most other IMAX animal documentaries: It makes no attempt at "story," and it lacks the presence of any creatures except those being discussed. In other words, people don't pop up in frame: not even any of the filmmakers. They're never seen in the water.

The only human presence here is narrator Daryl Hannah, whose solemn delivery underscores this film's primary purpose: It is not intended to entertain, but to enlighten. And warn.

Every one of the 12 creatures profiled here is endangered in some manner, some drastically so. And the film never lets us forget this; Hannah's commentary on each magnificent animal inevitably concludes with the ominous observation that  absent some drastic attitude adjustments on our part  we'll not be privileged to see them for much longer.

I favor more responsible stewardship of our oceans as much as (if not more than) the next person, but this film pounds the same message with the subtlety of a jack-hammer.

Frankly, the result is profoundly depressing; it's hard not to burst into tears.

One sympathizes with Mantello, McKinney and special adviser Jean-Michel Cou-steau; no doubt they've all grown frustrated and desperate, believing that previous "feel good" documentaries aren't getting the job done. Fair enough, but Dolphins and Whales is bound to lose whatever portion of its audience is generated by favorable word of mouth. Watching this picture is a downer, and friends don't let friends get bushwhacked.

Actually, this IMAX feature seems designed more as a classroom educational film than anything remotely approximating "popular entertainment." Each creature is introduced separately with its name and a skeletal still shot, before we get between three and five minutes of breathtaking underwater footage. After what seems like the barest introduction, Hannah's commentary builds to a sobering close, and then we're on to the next undersea denizen.

The effect is akin to visual whiplash: Just as we become interested in each animal, we're yanked out of its environment, whisked to some other underwater portion of the world, and introduced to another critter. It's a Readers Digest Condensed Movie taken to an absurd extreme.

Better, I think, to have spent twice as much time with half as many creatures.

We'd therefore have gotten a better sense of (for example) the hours, days, weeks and months that a mother whale spends with its calf, which constantly must be nudged toward the water's surface for the first several days of its life, because it doesn't yet know that it must do so to continue breathing.

Or we could have spent more time watching dolphins play an impromptu game of "pass the seaweed," looking for all the world like a gaggle of folks charging into the back yard for a round of touch football.

Actually, one shouldn't approach this film without access to its extensive press notes, which rather reinforces the fact that this makes a better classroom experience. Only then, for example, can one obtain a much more detailed description of the distinction between baleen whales (the fin whale, southern right whale and humpback whale) and toothed whales (sperm whale, orca, beluga whale and most dolphins).

Hannah's narration briefly touches upon the primary difference  baleen whales filter-feed via "baleen plates," whereas toothed whales have teeth in the usual sense  but not to a degree that properly covers the differing anatomies. But, then, that's typical of this film's approach: never more than a tantalizing taste of anything.

It also would be nice to have a better sense of relative size and scale. With no human beings in any shots, and with most of these creatures seen only in their own company, we just can't truly appreciate the enormity of right whales and fin whales.

Still, the segments are impressive even in their brevity; some are jaw-dropping. It has been said that one truly gets a sense of God's infinite wonders by staring directly into a whale's massive eye; although at some remove thanks to the presence of a camera and a movie theater screen, McKinney nonetheless grants us that experience.

The impressively regal creature conveys intelligence, calm dignity and much, much more with its glance: a look that encourages us to read all sorts of additional emotion into its gaze. Concern? Disappointment?

Or, perhaps worst of all, trust?

By far the best "money shot," however, involves the fate of a "bait ball" of small fish. Previous underwater documentaries have demonstrated how large schools of small fish bundle together into a sphere-like shape, to better protect themselves against hungry, ocean-diving birds from above, and equally hungry dolphins from below. The strategy works to a degree, and we see it repeated here.

But Nature builds in exceptions to every defense mechanism, and the 85-foot, 88-ton fin whale has the ultimate solution: In one huge, impressive gulp, we see it swallow an entire bait ball. (We can't help wondering if all the birds and dolphins successfully get away, each time this happens!)

Massive creatures obviously have equally massive appetites, and this scene is simply breathtaking.

It's obviously churlish to bad-mouth a film this well-intentioned, and in fact I'd like to believe that everybody would embrace such a viewing experience. But it should be done with full awareness of this film's limitations and conscious directorial decisions of tone and approach. Dolphins and Whales is the pathway to an educational discussion, and should not be approached spontaneously, as a quick night at the movies.

It certainly succeeds as advocacy cinema, however, and as a reasonably stern wake-up call.

Wouldn't it be nice if folks paid attention, and stopped using the world's oceans as  in Cousteau's words  a garbage can?

No comments:

Post a Comment