Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 86 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jacques Cousteau (oceanographer, hero, legend, defender of the environment, filmmaker, and scientist), Louis Malle (AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS, ATLANTIC CITY, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, THE FIRE WITHIN).
Best one-liner(s): See review.
Shit the bed! I have been rendered speechless. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Jacques Cousteau and his cronies (the inspiration for Wes Anderson's far less ludicrous LIFE AQUATIC- from the stilted re-stagings to a musician on board to the bulbous underwater observatory to red woolen caps to island diversions to exactly duplicated camera angles) wander the high seas more in search of shits and giggles than genuine scientific research in this 1956 documentary. A lot of the novelty revolved around the then-new high-tech underwater cameras, but now this film is appallingly hilarious. Need a coral reef sample?- use an axe! Need a census of reef-dwelling fish? Blow the bastards up with TNT!
This is, indeed, really happening.
A hapless dying blowfish, now on land, inflates itself in a panic. Jacques explains that it's a defensive measure against being eaten- 'BUT IT'S NO MATCH FOR DYNAMITE!' (Jacques himself provides a vaguely self-aware, smarmy Herzogian narration throughout.)
Prepare yourself for some surreal fuckin' sights. Like six Frenchmen riding each other's ankles as they hitch a ride on a water scooter. Speaking of hitching rides, ANY time they see a giant turtle or tortoise, the initial reflex is to take it for a free ride.
See a Frenchman weighing down a sea turtle as it struggles to reach the surface and breath! See a Frenchman riding two tortoises like giant, mobile shoes! What's the first thing you think of when you see tortoises? To use them as picnic tables and benches, of course! While on this 'tortoise island,' they encounter a black "island man" who explains the life cycle of the tortoise to them in offensively dubbed pidgin English. "Me think the turtle cry not because of 'de pain...but cause of 'de sorrow."
Later, they make friends with a Grouper they name 'Ulysses,' feeding it scraps of meat, trying to dance with the fish. All I can think of is Herzog, in GRIZZLY MAN, saying "And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food." So they 'befriend' the Grouper, who then keeps coming back for food...because they fed it. This pisses off Cousteau and the gang who now dub Ulysses a 'nuisance.' 'Time to put him in jail!' They bring down a shark cage and imprison the Grouper for a spell. As they depart, they release him and wistfully impart 'We'll never forget you, Ulysses!' Indeed.
And the science?! They frequently boast about how great their technology is, mocking a Greek diver using outdated equipment, and then they run one scientific test across film's entirety. What do they do the rest of the time? They dick around like frat boys on vacation. There is one incident in particular that is the perfect example of mankind's folly, and the ability of tragedy and comedy to bleed into one another. Cousteau and his crew are chasing a group of sperm whales, trying to get close and "study" them. Things get off to a good start when they accidentally ram one whale and then one of the crew tries to harpoon another, just for the hell of it. And they're riding these whales' asses, too. "Increase the throttle!" Of course, tragedy strikes. They ran over a baby whale, which is now horrifically lacerated by the engine. Immediately, Jacques blames the whale, saying its 'youthful brashness' was the reason for the tragedy. Of course it's the whale's fault that was run over at top speed. Blood is pouring everywhere; one wouldn't think that a single animal could contain so much blood. The ocean, now crimson, begins to fill with sharks- 30 or 40 of them. Jacques and the team harpoon the dying whale and shoot it in the head to put it out of its misery. The sharks begin to gorge themselves. Jacques and the team immediately spring into action, pulling out the shark cage so that they can film it, Jacques adding that he 'hopes the cable will hold' for the sake of the cameramen within. Given the scarce amount of the whale left at the finish, I have to imagine that they filmed the feast for several hours. As soon as the cage is out of the water, and they're finished shooting the 'orgy,' the sailors seek righteous revenge against the sharks. They actually say the phrase that they're 'avenging' the baby whale.'
So let me get this straight: they ran over a baby whale because they were dickin' around, the sharks came because they're animals and that is their instinct, they let the sharks eat until they were done filming, and then they murdered the sharks to avenge the whale? They must harpoon and pull up twenty or thirty sharks out of the water onto the deck, whereupon the crew bludgeons the shit out of them with poles, harpoons, and, my personal favorite, giant axes. Whew. I feel like I'm watching a dozen bulls in a china shop. Why don't we just beam this out into space and let the aliens put us out of our misery?
Alright, guys, four stars for being fuckin' lunatics, and showing me far more about the depths of humanity's ignorance than the depths of the ocean's 'silent world.'