A nonfiction pirate movie that tickles one’s inner eco-radical, “At the Edge of the World” spends a season in the frozen sea with Paul Watson and his militant-mariner Sea Shepherd crew as they try to save endangered mammals from the restaurant suppliers of the Japanese whaling fleet. Docu-cum-chase film may have limited theatrical appeal, but should make a dent in the specialty market and, certainly, the DVD racks.
Greenpeace founder and eco-warrior Watson — whose ships, the Farley Mowat and Robert Hunter, sail without a national flag and are thus considered pirate vessels — leads 46 largely untrained volunteers to the south Antarctic Ocean as the 2006-07 whaling season starts. Despite a 1986 international U.N. ban on whaling, three nations — Norway, Iceland and Japan — continue the hunt, Japan doing so through a loophole that allows whaling for “research.” Most of the meat, we are told, ends up on dinner plates. Watson, fellow captain Alex Cornelissen and the volunteers take their ships, their outrage and their “can opener” — a steel protrusion capable of puncturing another ship’s hull — after the Japanese.
Helmer Dan Stone (working with co-director Patrick Gambuti Jr.) doesn’t concentrate so much on Watson, who is seen almost exclusively on the ship-to-shore phone, giving interviews to various news outlets and firmly spinning his story. Between not-so-high-speed pursuits, Stone gives a tour of the Hunter (Cornelissen’s craft), providing glimpses into the lives of people who would devote months to the whales and the rather inhospitable Antarctic. Some of what he discovers is comically predictable: guitar players singing treacly pop songs, one guy juggling snowballs. A seeming epidemic of seasickness spreads among the crew. A sense of mission infects them all.
The seascape photography is magnificent, the wind-and-water-sculpted icebergs creating a kind of Monument Valley through which Watson and his posse ride down the bad guys. Their weaponry includes the can opener, “stink bombs” that pollute the decks of enemy ships (and make whale meat inedible) and long skeins of rope that are laid in the path of the Japanese ships to entangle their propellers.
Regretfully, Stone fails to make the entire process as exciting as it might have been. Perhaps in an effort not to sensationalize, he dampens the seafaring-adventure aspect of the Sea Shepherd mission, and there are long sequences in which the viewer doesn’t really have a grip on where or why particular events are occurring.
There are can’t-miss moments, of course: When two pilots of a small craft get lost while harassing a Japanese whaler, a real crisis seems imminent; when the Robert Hunter actually rams a Japanese ship, you can’t quite believe it’s happening. But Watson and company are serious; some would call them terrorists. The Sea Shepherd people say they’re only trying, as citizens, to enforce international conservation law.
As an opening title points out, a pod of whales, 150 years ago, could take 24 hours to pass by a whale ship. That certain countries would continue to kill whales clearly delineates good vs. evil in “At the Edge of the World,” which certainly can’t hurt the film commercially.