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Into the Deep

The movie Deep Blue shows Hollywood what special effects really look like.

12:00 AM, May 27, 2005 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IF YOU FIND YOURSELF yearning for a bit of real magic after sitting through Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas's computer-generated confection, you should keep an eye on your local theater for Deep Blue.

A documentary directed by Andy Byatt and the wonderfully named Alastair Fothergill for the BBC, Deep Blue is only now seeping out into release in the United States. Showings begin in major cities in the coming weeks and, if the movie proves successful, Miramax will no doubt book it out into the hinterlands. If you should be lucky enough to have Deep Blue showing in your neck of the woods, you'd be a fool to miss it.

Deep Blue is a return to the great oceanographic documentaries of yesteryear, but Byatt and Fothergill avoid all hints of Steve Zissou-ism. No humans appear on camera and the narration is sparse (the U.S. release is voiced by Pierce Brosnan), giving us only the barest outlines of context. In Deep Blue, the camera speaks for itself.

What results are some of the most astonishing images you will ever see onscreen. From the first moments of the film as dolphins body-surf and then hurdle big waves to the ghostly scene of a jellyfish swarm to the haunting and terrifying shot of hundreds of hammerhead sharks congregating under the moonlight, Deep Blue outclasses any spectacle you'll see at the movies this summer.

Among the wonders is the making of a feeding frenzy, begun by a flock of albatross as they spy a school of sardines swimming just below the surface. As the albatross are about to begin their dive-bombing attacks, dolphins appear, and begin herding the fish into a chum ball. Before long a pack of sharks joins in and we see dolphins and sharks feeding together as albatrosses shoot into the water from above. The party is broken up only when a whale emerges from the deep, his gaping jaw opening to allow him to take in gallons and gallons of water and fish. The other hunters promptly decide to get out of his way.

Anyone who had an oceanographer phase as a child will find his particular favorite getting a moment in the spotlight. Byatt and Fothergill give us moray eels, manta rays, sharks, octopuses, swordfish, a whale-shark--even polar bears and emperor penguins. And that's not to mention the bizarre, frightening creatures of the very deep, some of whom have never been photographed before. They twinkle and skittle, their bodies like living versions of Times Square signs.

And all the while George Fenton's score dances beneath the imagery, supporting the visuals, but never overpowering them. It's impressive work from the composer.

One word of caution: Deep Blue is rated G, but some scenes may not be suitable for small children--particularly two featuring killer whales. In one, a group of orcas ambush sea lions playing in the surf. In the carnage, the whales drag their prey back out to sea where they begin tossing the carcasses around. The power of these creatures is so great that one of them throws a dead sea lion what looks to be about 35 feet into the air; it's a frightening display of strength. (The other scene involves a pod of killer whales stalking a gray whale and her 3-year-old calf. The chase ends badly for the calf; but on the plus side, your children will never badger you for a trip to Sea World to see Shamu, nor for that matter, will they ever want to rent Free Willy again.)

Should you need further convincing of the merits of Deep Blue, see the dazzling trailer, which hints at the wonders the movie contains. As Byatt and Fothergill demonstrate, the most special effects are real.

Jonathan V. Last is the film critic for The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves.