I went to Deep Blue hoping to see something that would make this documentary deserve its theatrical release, over the countless other nature documentaries available on TV and cable. Would it, like Winged Migration, have groundbreaking new photography? Would it, like James Cameron’s IMAX documentaries, be tied to some new expedition to a never-before seen place? Or would there be some scene in the movie so unexpected and powerful that the filmmakers were able leverage that scene for theatrical distribution?
Alas, none of these is the case. There is good drama in Deep Blue. There is some amazing photography. There are some surprising creatures you may never have seen before. But on the whole, with its usually factless narration read by Pierce Brosnan, Deep Blue could have lived its life on TV and felt more at home.
Like many nature documentaries, Deep Blue moves from one scene to another. First we look at the albatross. Then we move to the seal, with a hastily-written logic-stretching segue. And then we move to swarms of sardines, and then to sharks.
Rather than making a single point about sea life, or finding common themes between its stories, Deep Blue is content to present the best footage it has and fit a story around it. I love nature documentaries, but I find this ad-hoc story structure unsatsifying, so the dismissive phrase “for kids” comes to mind (in spite of critic Walter Chaw’s reminders that a bad movie “for kids” is still a bad movie).
But Deep Blue is probably too disturbing for many children. The filmmakers revel in the cruelty of orcas. They linger for five minutes on an orca playing with, killing, and eating a baby seal. The slow-motion photography is sickeningly fascinated with death. The same thing happens later in the film when two orcas kill a baby gray whale. The narration grimly informs us that the whale takes six hours to die.
Granted, it’s nigh-impossible to make a nature documentary without mentioning the “circle of life.” But the grim satisfaction of the filmmakers, the relish with which they seem to be enjoying these death scenes, feels inappropriate for kids or adults.
In-between there are comic scenes of crabs (complete with cute calypso music that reminds you how cloying expressive scoring can be), dolphins flipping, and sharks and birds sharing a meal. Most of this footage really is no better than what you’ll see on the Discovery channel, although the deep-sea, bioluminescent creatures really are amazing.
The sound effects of the bioluminescent flashes make you wonder whether the documentarians are lying to you, or whether they somehow got an underwater microphone to actually record the sounds made down deep. A foley artist (sound effects creator) is listed in the credits, so the movie must not be entirely “true.”
Then again, documentaries always take liberties. Framing a shot and editing footage are common forms of “lying” through film. So calypso music, slow motion, and sound effects must be relatively harmless, too.
But each question raised is one less reason that Deep Blue deserves a wider release on a bigger screen than any other nature documentary. At some point, the number of reasons gets down to zero, and, depending on how much you spent and how far the theater is, you wish you had stayed home in front of the TV.