On life, death and cuttlefish

Under the Sea 3D

on February 11, 2009 by John P. McCarthy

Heavy on cuttlefish and the damaging effects of climate change, the latest IMAX movie from the makers of Deep Sea 3D and Into the Deep 3D showcases marine creatures from the coral-rich waters around Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia. The IMAX format is ideal for the subject matter and, like its predecessors, this documentary proves to be a hybrid of entertainment and education, revealing rarely-seen natural splendors while sounding alarm bells about the environment. It should whet appetites for all the 3D and/or IMAX films in the pipeline without becoming a major “destination” movie in its own right.

Jim Carrey unctuously intones narration penned by a trio that includes director Howard Hall, who also shot the majority of footage using gigantic IMAX cameras. Multiple varieties of cuttlefish grab the spotlight from their oceanic brethren. One memorable sequence shows three flamboyant cuttlefish trying to mate while Doris Day chirps the ditty Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps ; and the sounds of a giant cuttlefish munching a crab are as palpable as the visuals. Hundreds of vertical garden eels swaying in the current is an amazing sight, as are the camouflage techniques adopted by other animals on display, including the rag carpet shark, poisonous stonefish and leafy sea dragon.

In the waters off Southern Australia, Hall and company come in close proximity to three great white sharks and frolic with gregarious sea lions. Watching a green sea turtle munching on a jellyfish is not only cool but serves as vicarious revenge for anyone who has ever been stung. Regarding parenting methods, the way two adult convict fish get their swarm of children to feed in their burrow on Australia's Great Barrier Reef (the largest structure on Earth, we’re told) is worth aping—even if, as marine biologists suspect, a few offspring become part of the meal.

Symbiosis is a prominent motif. The relationship between the potato cod and cleaner fish is an example of how different species rely on each another to fulfill a particular service and therefore live in harmony. The 40 minutes go by quickly and it’s eye opening to read that it took 350 hours underwater and 110 days at sea to capture the 10 hours of raw footage from which the movie is culled. Unfortunately, it ends with a cheesy rendition of the Beatles’ tune Octopus’s Garden playing on the soundtrack. No matter how apt, it sounds like a bad theme park jingle and ruins the mood.

Under the Sea 3D fulfills its pedagogical mandate by prodding viewers to focus on how man is damaging this fragile ecosystem and the environment in general. This in turn makes you wonder about the carbon footprint of the logistically complex production. (When housed in its protective casing, each IMAX camera weighs 1,300 pounds and is not easy to maneuver). The primary ecology lesson concerns acidification and how an excess of carbon dioxide in the world’s oceans is killing coral. As water temperatures rise, coral is bleached white and dies. And as their habitat suffers, fish are venturing further south into colder waters but are running out of places to go. We’re also informed that venomous sea snakes are facing extinction because of the demand for wallets, shoes and handbags.

Raising awareness is a necessary first step and a worthwhile goal. It’s reasonable to assume that by showing people these dazzling creatures they’ll be more likely to want to preserve them. Yet there’s always the nagging question concerning what the average person can or should do about such a macro problem. You’d feel better, and our collective conscience might be eased, if a portion of the ticket price went toward fighting global warming.

The creative challenge for nature documentarians working in the big-format arena is to ensure their films don’t all convey the same message—to make them be more than just pretty public service announcements. Ditto for the movie industry as a whole. The more 3D and IMAX movies that hit the market, the less of a novelty they become. As moviegoers grow accustomed to the experience—and get used to paying higher prices and donning glasses—they’ll be harder to impress.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Narrator: Jim Carrey
Director: Howard Hall
Producers: Toni Myers
Genre: Documentary
Rating: G
Running time: 40 min.
Release date: February 13 ltd.

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