When is a documentary not a documentary? When everything in it is carefully edited and scored for dramatic effect. And – an even worse development in the digital age – when even the raw images themselves have been manipulated and treated.
Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between Deep Blue, a sort of greatest-hits compilation from the BBC Natural History Unit television series, and the delightful Pixar animation, Finding Nemo (2003). On some levels, the completely unreal and artificial cartoon version of life "down under" captures the wonder of the sea better than its documentary counterpart.
There comes a moment not too far into Deep Blue when the alert viewer starts disbelieving, or at least suspecting, everything presented on-screen. A tense scene, engineered for maximum Hitchcockian effect, cuts between a scared-looking little fish and the ugly predator after him. But hang on – how were the cameras in just the right places at just the right split-seconds to record all of that, complete with professional changes of angle? (The filmmakers claim it was all true, and all captured with multi-camera shooting.) Much later, in a risible, summing-up moment, a parade of many types of fish displays, all too obviously, the digital trickery at work.
Although there are certainly some dazzling creatures and vistas lined up for our contemplation by co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Andy Byatt, the overall effect of this piece is soporific. Michael Gambon's deep, rich, voice-over narration – which almost sounds as if it has been slowed-down and lowered in pitch – turns out to be a powerful narcotic. And if the film were named for the prose style of this narration, it would be Deep Purple. We are constantly regaled by invocations of "ghostly rules" and exhortations to "go deeper now".
Literally in its last few seconds, the film suddenly grows an ecological conscience, appending a message about vanishing species that comes across as an idle afterthought.
MORE life aquatic: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
© Adrian Martin December 2004