At my college, there was a well-known gut course for humanities majors looking to fulfill their science requirement with as little sweat as possible. It was called Oceans of the World. Legend had it that on the first day of every semester, the professor, an elderly oceanographer, would amble in, plant his hands firmly on either side of the podium, and address the class: “Have you ever been to the ocean?”
I never took Oceans of the World, but with the release of Disney’s documentary Oceans, it’s as if I had. This 86-minute movie, created by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (who made the 2001 bird documentary Winged Migration) is long on breathtaking visuals and short on cognitive content. You know it’s going to be an easy A when Pierce Brosnan, the film’s English-language voiceover narrator, intones these words near the beginning: “As far as the eye can see, north, south, east, west, the ocean smiles at the sky.” Almost everything that happens on the soundtrack of Oceans is patronizingly obvious, from Brosnan’s fruity narration to the heavily orchestrated, anthropomorphizing music score. These aesthetic choices not only underestimate the viewer’s intelligence; they underestimate the ocean. Does the Great Barrier Reef really need to be made more otherworldly, or newly hatched sea turtles more adorable? Is the majesty of a blue whale in need of sonic enhancement?
And yet, and yet: If you love nature documentaries, if you own the box set of Planet Earth and find it impossible to turn off an episode of PBS’ Nature, you not only should but must see Oceans,because its visual splendor more than makes up for its intellectual poverty. The variety of beautiful, comical, unearthly sea creatures on display is enough to give the Mos Eisley cantina scene in Star Wars a run for its money. “Down here, it’s like nature has given everything a try,” says Brosnan in a rare moment of mild insight, and it’s true. The leafy sea dragon, the Spanish dancer sea slug, and the dugong all look like they’ve been dreamed up by Dr. Seuss.
The style of nature photography on display here may not be to everyone’s taste: Oceans does for underwater cinematography what Avatardid for 3-D, making the aquatic world look crisply defined and lushly colored, almost pornographically beautiful. The existence of the vast apparatus that must have been in place to create these images—the boats full of equipment, the waterproof lighting rigs—remains invisible until the closing credits, when images of sharks swimming next to scuba-diving cameramen run side by side with credits for jobs like “underwater gaffer.”
The directors do have a few original visual ideas, at one point giving us a krill’s-eye view of what it’s like to be sucked into the baleen of a whale. But essentially, Oceans is a straightforward catalog of freaky-cool creatures in motion: the blanket octopus, whose tentacles are connected by sheets of brightly colored webbing that billows in the water like a silk scarf. Or garden eels, slim creatures with elegant black-and-white scales that look like costumes from a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers picture. Exactly how these animals live, or even where they live, is rarely clear; the movie has a habit of jolting us without warning from Baffin Bay to the China Sea.
The information-free gauziness of the narration had to have been a conscious choice on the filmmakers’ part, an attempt to avoid the documentary cliché of the scientific talking head. But as Oceans meanders vaguely from one body of water to the next, you find yourself longing for an expert voice, someone with the zoological knowledge to tell you, for example, why dolphins execute a useless but beautiful double turn as they leap out of the water. One of the most visually arresting moments of the film, a battle between two unthinkably huge armies of spider crabs on the floor of Melbourne Bay, leaves the most obvious questions unasked: What are the crabs fighting about, and how do they know who’s won?
Oceans may have dumbed itself down with the intention of drawing in young viewers, but even children—especially children—want to know how to interpret what they see. Oceans shows relatively little Darwinian bloodshed, making it suitable for viewing with even the youngest oceanographers. Now that I’ve seen it, I hope to take my 4-year-old. But when she walks out firing off questions about the undersea kingdom, I’ll have nothing but Pierce Brosnan generalities to offer. Maybe I should have taken Oceans of the World.