You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Mission Blue’

A compelling human-interest hook and spectacular underwater photography are the highlights of Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon's documentary.


Sylvia Earle, Fisher Stevens, Jeremy Jackson, James Cameron, Carl Safimna, Liz Taylor, Mike DeGruy, Graham Hawkes, Bryce Goark, Imogen Zethoven.

The majesty and imperiled status of the world’s aquatic life are vividly captured in “Mission Blue.” Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon’s documentary also serves as a biographical portrait of internationally renowned oceanographer and eco-activist Sylvia Earle, whose trailblazing career and inspiring ongoing efforts provide compelling human interest, while Bryce Groark’s spectacular underwater photography offers eye candy aplenty. This “Mission” is marred only by co-director Stevens’ insistence on inserting himself whenever possible as a wholly gratuitous host/jester/co-star; that inapt vanity-project whiff aside, the brisk, polished pic looks shipshape for international broadcast sales.

Stevens met Earle after producing 2009’s Oscar-winning “The Cove,” about dubious Japanese dolphin-hunting practices. That led to him following his new best friend — though the earnest, affable, dignified Earle treats him more as a patient professor would a breathlessly eager-to-please freshman — for three years of her nonstop globetrotting to research, lecture and lobby on behalf of ocean preservation. Their travels range from Chesapeake Bay to the Great Barrier Reef; in some locations she’d previously visited, she’s dismayed by the decimation of once-flourishing coral and fish life due to pollution and overfishing.

As Earle points out, the planet’s waters are in dire shape, and that is very bad news for life on Earth in general. However, many who profit from their despoiling are reluctant to hear that message — something she had particular experience with in a brief, frustrating Washington, D.C., tenure as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the early 1990s.

Popular on Variety

Now nearing 80, Earle came to fame more in the realm of novelty early in her career. Entering the field as a botanist soon after Jacques Cousteau’s aqualung innovations made deep-sea exploration much more viable, she participated in several high-profile projects, including the Tektite experiments in prolonged underwater living. But the press often focused less on the science than on the incongruity of a pretty “girl” doing such things, usually vastly outnumbered by men.

“Mission Blue” has fun sending up the dated, wink-wink sexism of such coverage; conversely, however, one doubts the filmmakers here would ask a male quite so many wide-eyed questions about his marriages, or the difficulty of juggling child raising with a busy career. (Stevens also says things like, “When you say ‘studying seaweed,’ what do you mean?” and “Sylvia, the minute I met you, you became like an example for me, I mean like really,” as if the film’s intended audience were Nickelodeon viewers.)

In the present tense, we glimpse environmentally catastrophic human actions like the mass harvesting of sharks solely for their valued fins, and industrial oil spills that create enormous aquatic dead zones. Earle’s current principal cause, also called Mission Blue, is advocating for hope spots, designated government-protected oceanic zones where nature can recover and be preserved from excess human impact.

The documentary and subject are in no need whatsoever of an audience intermediary, which makes Stevens’ chummy voiceover and photobombing-like camera presence seem embarrassingly forced. Even some fleeting, disposable staged scenes with actors playing Earle as a child and teenager frolicking on the beach feel organic by comparison. Nonetheless, Stevens’ self-casting is a sign of the cinematic times: Perhaps documentarians should now be required to sign contracts promising not to turn their films into selfies.

The production is tightly edited and high-grade in all tech departments, its undeniable highlight being Groark’s footage of brilliantly colored life beneath the ocean surface, complemented by some great-looking clips from Cousteau and Louis Malle’s 1956 “The Silent World.” The film, which opened the Santa Barbara Film Festival, is dedicated to local filmmaker and eco-activist Mike DeGruy, who died in a helicopter crash in Australia two years ago.

Film Review: 'Mission Blue'

Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (opener), Jan. 31, 2014. (Also in Berlin Film Festival — Culinary Cinema.) Running time: 95 MIN.


(Documentary) An Insurgent Media presentation in association with Hope Scots Co., Diamond Docs and True Blue Films of a Hope Spots Co. production. Produced by Erik H. Gordon, Fisher Stevens, Robert Nixon, Jack Youngelson, Peter J. Livingston Jr. Executive producers, Julie Nives, Andrew S. Karsch. Co-producer, Zara Duffy.


Directed by Fisher Stevens, Robert Nixon. Written by Mark Monroe, Jack Youngelson. Camera (color, HD), Damien Drake, Axel Baumann; editor, Peter R. Livingston Jr.; music, Will Bates; music supervisors, Susan Jacobs, Jackie Mulhearn; CGI, 422 South; visual effects/animation designer, Lucjan Gorczynski; sound, Tim Korn, John McNamara, Jesse Flower-Ambroch, Juan Antonio Bertran, Dan Gleich, Gabe Monts, Len Schmitz, Judy Fieth; re-recording mixers, Peter Waggoner, Damian Volpe; underwater photography, Bryce Groark.


Sylvia Earle, Fisher Stevens, Jeremy Jackson, James Cameron, Carl Safimna, Liz Taylor, Mike DeGruy, Graham Hawkes, Bryce Goark, Imogen Zethoven.

More Film

  • The Banker

    Apple Delays 'The Banker' Release Amid Review of Family Accusations

    Apple is delaying the theatrical release of “The Banker,” originally set for Dec. 6 with assistance from Bleecker Street, insiders familiar with the company said. It’s being delayed as the filmmakers review accusations of historical inaccuracy and sexual abuse at the hands of co-producer Bernard Garrett Jr. The film was also set to premiere on [...]

  • Alex Ginno Fully Formed

    Brad Fuller and Andrew Form's Fully Formed Taps Alex Ginno as Head of Film (EXCLUSIVE)

    Alex Ginno has joined Brad Fuller and Andrew Form’s Fully Formed as head of film. The company has a three-year first-look deal with Paramount, where they recently wrapped production on “A Quiet Place: Part II” and are currently prepping Season 3 of the hit show “Jack Ryan” for Amazon. The second season recently bowed, with [...]

  • Queen and Slim soundtrack

    Album Review: 'Queen & Slim: The Soundtrack'

    “Queen & Slim,” the film, traffics in sudden tragedy and symbolic terror as it portrays the violence of self-defense and self-awareness in stark, painful terms. It deserves an equally audacious score and soundtrack, a job that has gone to another Devonté Hynes, the British singer, songwriter, guitarist, record producer and director in his guise of Blood [...]

  • Michael Jackson in concert in Milton

    Michael Jackson Music Biopic in the Works From 'Bohemian Rhapsody' Producer

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” producer Graham King has struck a deal with the Michael Jackson estate for the pop star’s life and music rights, with plans to make a feature film based on both. King has tapped “Gladiator” and “The Aviator” screenwriter John Logan for the project. The film currently has no studio or distributor attached. The [...]

  • Michael J. Pollard Dead

    Michael J. Pollard, 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'House of 1000 Corpses' Actor, Dies at 80

    Academy Award nominee Michael J. Pollard, known for his roles in “Bonnie and Clyde” and “House of 1000 Corpses,” has died. He was 80. “House of 1000 Corpses” director Rob Zombie broke the news on Facebook early Friday morning. “We have lost another member of our ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ family. I woke up to [...]

  • Jonathan Pryce

    Jonathan Pryce on Early Roles, Reading Reviews and Advice He Got From Lee Strasberg

    Jonathan Pryce, who has done memorable work for 40-plus years, hits a career high in “The Two Popes,” a complex look at Francis, played by Pryce, and Benedict, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Though Pryce has played well-known figures before, such as Juan Perón in the 1996 “Evita,” he was hesitant to take on Pope Francis [...]

  • Tracy Letts Ford V Ferrari

    Tracy Letts on His Writing Routine and His Roles in 'Ford v Ferrari,' 'Little Women'

    Tracy Letts says he’s driven by the need to tell stories that showcase humanity. It’s a need that earned him a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for “August: Osage County” and led to his current Broadway play, “Linda Vista,” about a 50-year-old divorcé (played by Ian Barford) in the midst of a midlife crisis. Letts also brings the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content