A dazzling but somewhat self-contradictory mixture of cutting-edge technology and cozily old-fashioned documentary filmmaking, ocean exploration doc “Wonders of the Sea 3D” is breathtakingly beautiful and unimpeachably well-intentioned. Its vibrant, thrillingly crisp 3D visuals alone give the armchair oceanographer all the excuse needed to dive right in, no snorkel needed. But unlike the Pacific Monarch, the hummingly modern white vessel on which co-director Jean-Michel Cousteau, his son Fabien, daughter Céline and intrepid director of photography Gavin McKinney will slice through azure waters from Fiji to California to The Bahamas, outside the imagery, the storytelling creaks.
Narrated by producer Arnold Schwarzenegger, in concert with Cousteau père and occasionally fils and fille, the voiceover script, with its unashamedly message-based PSA-style agenda, might be more suited to a hi-tech schoolroom outfitted with 3D projection facilities (presumably such innovations are not far off) than the multiplex. But even then, beyond its value as a series of mind-expanding quasi-optical illusions — as apparently dull surfaces explode into puffs of color, and impossible-looking creatures thread in and out through softly spiny reefs — it relies a little too heavily on the assembled kids being impressed by a Schwarzenegger who is, one brief prologue and one clumsy “Terminator” reference aside, on curiously anonymous form. The Cousteau family name, moreover, will probably mean a lot less to them than to their parents.
Still, the loveliness of the footage, especially the macro work that brings the tiniest animal to such vivid life you can anthropomorphize the expressions on their faces, cannot be denied. There’s a particularly impressive sequence shot during a night dive which does for the lower reaches of the nocturnal ocean what “Gravity” did for space, as filmy luminescent creatures put on neon laser light shows in the inky blackness of the deep sea. The voiceover compares these twinkling displays to constellations and nebulae, and even sees in a drifting jellyfish a satellite tumbling through water like Sputnik though low-earth space.
Elsewhere, anemones blossom, stick-like crabs scuttle, wise-looking turtles swim sagaciously by and giant, century-old clams expel clouds of sand into the crystal clear waters, accented by the symphonically majestic score from Christophe Jaquelin. Symbiotically co-dependent species help each other out: Little workers busily clean the teeth of higher predators, and bright clownfish nestle into the poisonous coral to which they’ve evolved an immunity, hiding but also performing something like guard-dog duty for the reef.
The most wondrous “Wonders” tend to be the less celebrated — the gaudy Christmas tree worms, the extraordinary octopi, the odd-looking eels. When Cousteau & Co. turn their attention to the oceanic A-listers, the film feels less impressive. There’s a slightly desultory section on sharks, and given that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has attained near national-holiday status, there will be nothing much here that even the entry-level sharkonnoisseur wont have seen before. And when some clumsily planted “clues” as to a “date” that Cousteau wants to keep turn out to refer to a seasonal hammerhead migration, the actual encounter is over practically before the writers can tortuously shoehorn in a reason for Arnie to say, “I’ll be back.”
Cousteau and co-director Jean-Jacques Mantello spent five years mounting this luscious movie, but it’s really part of a lifelong — indeed lives-long — project for the Cousteau dynasty of making people, especially young people, “fall in love with ocean” and therefore resolve to protect its dwindling resources and endangered eco-balance. But the seriousness and urgency of this avowed aim is rather undercut by the film’s gentle, placid tone, and the script’s tendency toward cutesiness, especially in the awkwardly scripted “banter” between the variously accented narrators.
Its plaintive but upbeat tone is typified by the earnest, Disney-esque closing song from aspiring popstrel Maisie Kay, in which the chorus runs, “If we all stand together side by side, we can bring her [the ocean] back to life.” It’s a very nice thought, but a little abstract considering overfishing, pollution and ocean acidification represent clear and present threats to the world’s seas, and therefore to mankind. But then, there are few specific action points put forward in this wilfully apolitical film (a few oblique references to climate change notwithstanding) and the idea of it galvanizing a new generation to ocean-defense activism seems optimistic at best. “Wonders of the Sea 3D” is an illuminating and enjoyable look at the ocean’s explosive biodiversity, but if things continue as they have been — and the didacticism and dad jokes here don’t really suggest how to stop them — it’s in danger of becoming a very beautiful record of what we once had, and lost.