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.
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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.