HKIFF 2011: OCEANS Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor

The last couple of years have seen the documentary field inundated with environmentally conscious films lecturing us in no uncertain terms about the scourge the human race has become and how time is running out if we don't want to be living in a blazing inferno of our own choking filth. Whether addressing global warming in AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH or the massacring of dolphins in THE COVE, these "message movies" are in danger of provoking the opposite reaction in their audiences, frustrating us with yet another liberal guilt lecture and subsequently turning us off before the "science bit" in which we learn how easy it would actually be to stop killing everything around us. With OCEANS, what directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzard have managed to do is create a film that is for the most part a dazzling aquatic exploration of the watery depths of our planet, but one with a gut-punch ecological message that surfaces when we least expect it, after we've spent the last hour enraptured by the wonders of the deep.

Audiences have been spoilt rotten by nature documentaries in recent years, with epic BBC series like THE BLUE PLANET and PLANET EARTH, taking us to the farthest reaches of our world and filming it in such spectacular, vivid fashion that now only the best will do. OCEANS, however, somehow manages to best even those works of technical wizardry and natural beauty as it takes us on a whirlwind tour of every tropical clime or conceivable aquatic ecosystem known to man. We witness up close and personal as a dolphin feeding frenzy is gatecrashed by a flock of diving-bombing Gannets, which in turn attracts larger fish, and subsequently Great White and Hammerhead sharks before finally a humpback whale wades in for his share of the goods. In one hilarious sequence, the cameras track a number of increasingly bizarre and otherworldly mollusks and crustaceans along the ocean floor, as they hunt, burrow or even fight it out against each other. As staggering and repeatedly jaw dropping as the photography is, many sequences are enriched by the film's pristine sound mixing, which captures every grunt, snap and gurgle that these creatures emanate, be they seal, crab or whale.

Perrin's narration (the HKIFF screened the original French version of the film rather than the Pierce Brosnan Disney release) avoids the classic David Attenborough style commentary, allowing the sea-life to speak for itself, while offering up the occasional philosophical musing. Despite the lack of facts or behavioral data on the soundtrack, the combination of underwater photography and French voiceover can't help but recall the work of Jean Painleve, whose science films about oceanic life delighted and informed throughout the last century. Almost cruelly, however, Derrin and Cluzard pull the rug out from under their audience, as the third act turns on its audience and shows in great detail how mankind is polluting the oceans, needlessly torturing and killing the creatures who live there and are wiping out entire species on an almost annual basis. OCEANS touches on everything from trawling and whaling to shark fin harvesting. At some point it is guaranteed to make us all feel guilty, but that is entirely the point.

There is no doubt that the film's message must be heeded immediately, but OCEANS is so much more than a lecture about environmental awareness. It is a deliriously passionate love letter to the world that lies unseen all around us, a dazzling display of cinematography, camerawork and sound recording, and a lasting document of some of the most beautiful and bizarre creatures you may never have known exist on this same planet Earth. If you get the opportunity to see OCEANS on the big screen, it is a cinematic experience not to be missed, and regardless of what you feel about the filmmakers and how they present their agenda, OCEANS represents about as perfect an example of pure Cinema as you're likely to see. 

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