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Movie Review

Imagine, if you will, that you possessed your own personal submarine. This particular, practically magical submarine could take you anywhere in the ocean. More specifically, it could show you anything—and everything—you might conceivably want to see there. No matter how big … or small. In the daytime or the nighttime. In tidal pools or in vast oceanic depths or beneath Antarctic ice caps. Off the coast of New Zealand or the Bahamas. The Indian Ocean. Atlantic. Pacific—you name it. This remarkable vehicle could offer you unrestricted access to the dizzying universe of aquatic diversity thriving just below the waves.

You'll never own such a submarine, of course. But it turns out you don't need it. Because the breathtaking new documentary Oceans provides just such a glimpse of the myriad, mystifying and majestic life forms that call the deep blue seas their home.

Oceans is the work of French co-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzad. Distributed by Disneynature in the United States, the 100-minute movie both follows and mirrors 2009's Earth. But though both films are broadly similar in that they're documentaries about the natural world, there are also some significant differences.

Unlike Earth, which largely chronicled the terrestrial trials, tribulations and treks of three animal families (polar bears, elephants and humpback whales), Oceans delivers a continuously flowing montage of undersea imagery. Irish actor Pierce Brosnan narrates the English version of the documentary (French, Italian and Japanese versions have all been released around the world as well), and his voiceover is actually quite spare, with minutes of footage sometimes filling the silence.

"To really know what the ocean is, you have to see it for yourself," Brosnan suggests in the introduction. "Merely knowing that [so many different] creatures exist isn't enough to tell the stories of their lives. You've got to see them jump and turn and swim."

And so we do.

Astonishing underwater photography repeatedly begs the question, How on earth (or in the ocean, I should say) did they film that? Dolphins frolic like lithe, silver torpedoes beneath and above the waves. All manner of whales—blue, sperm, humpback, killer, narwhal and beluga—make regular appearances, too. We watch as they breach, feed, sing … even sleep. That last activity is something they do in a vertical position underwater, by the way, something I've never witnessed in the many, many hours of National Geographic programming I've ingested through the years.

Other usual suspects make appearances, including sharks, rays, seals, penguins, otters and sea turtles. But the real showstoppers here are the underwater residents I (and likely you) have never set eyes on before, like the beautiful blanket octopus, looking for all the world like a silk scarf fluttering through the abyss.

A mother walrus teaches her calf to swim. Ditto an Antarctic leopard seal. And otters in Monterey Bay peg the cute meter as they playful pound oysters on rocks and help each other stay clean.

Then, ooohs turn to owwws when unsuspecting seals meet their end at the whim of great white sharks and killer whales. And just-hatched turtles don't have much chance against hungry seagulls keeping a sharp eye on their hatching ground. More than once I heard surprised yelps erupting from younger members of the audience when cute little animals became dinner for lurking predators.

As Brosnan says, "The story of the ocean is one of fierce and natural struggle for survival, but also one of tenderness."

It's also a truly stunning glimpse of God's creative handiwork.

As was the case with Earth, though, the film doesn't mention Him. The closest it comes to the idea that these magnificent creatures were actually created is in one brief metaphorical nod to Nature ("Down here, it's like Nature has given everything a try: every color, every way of life, every shape").

More frequently, we hear references to the Darwinist assumption that all of these creatures evolved. Early on, we're told that the oceans' multifaceted population gradually grew more diverse over the course of billions of years. "If you take a step back, it's easy to see how life itself began, in a pulse of water and a splash of sunlight," Brosnan relates. "A little bit at a time, new forms of life came rippling through the water, adapting, evolving." The deep is described as "a magical world where even the tiniest of creatures may shed some light on how our universe came into being."

Those evolutionary references are joined by a stronger, Discovery Channel-style emphasis on environmental responsibility and the effects of global warming. As dolphins ply the air with their equivalent of triple toe loops (triple flipper loops?), Brosnan says, "All that strength and energy depends on a healthy, thriving, resilient ocean." The biggest impediment to that goal? Humanity: "We have littered the ocean with hundreds of millions of tons of trash, human objects which challenge each creature [that encounters them] to find a new way or place to survive. Human influence is surely the oceans' greatest threat." Satellite photos of polluted estuaries follow, and we're visually reminded of the combined impact of technology, over-consumption and waste.

With rising temperatures, we're told, areas of heretofore unnavigable ice will soon be "open to commercial navigation. What will become of those who live there? The animals themselves cannot stand up for their survival. The cries of endangered species cannot be heard."

And yet they can, in a very real sense, through movies such as this.

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