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.

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

  • Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses after

    Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Accuses 'I Love You, Berlin' Producers of Censorship

    The executive producer of anthology film “Berlin, I Love You” is engaged in a war of words with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, whose contribution to the movie was left on the cutting-room floor. Ai contends that the segment he shot for “Berlin, I Love You” was axed by the producers for political reasons, out [...]

  • Oscars Nominees Popular Movies

    Oscar Best Picture Race Dominated by Box Office Winners

    This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ ill-fated popular film Oscar category could have just as easily been dubbed “best picture.” That’s because the crop of movies vying to take home the top prize represents the highest-grossing group of best picture nominees in nearly a decade. The eight films in the category [...]

  • Isabela Moner Marcel Ruiz Rosa Salazar

    Variety Announces 10 Latinxs to Watch 2019

    Variety has announced this year’s 10 Latinxs to Watch, and has also selected the Miami Film Festival as a partner for the annual celebration of promising talent in the Latino community that will include a panel and film screenings. This year’s honorees are Isabela Moner (“Dora the Explorer”), Rosa Salazar (“Alita: Battle Angel,” “Bird Box”), [...]

  • New Regency Launches U.K.-Based International TV

    New Regency Launches International TV Division With Scott Free Alum Ed Rubin

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” co-producer New Regency has launched a London-based international TV division, recruiting former Scott Free exec Ed Rubin to run the new operation and hiring Emma Broughton from The Ink Factory (“The Night Manager”) as head of scripted. New Regency produced “The Revenant,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman.” It recently opened up shop [...]

  • Kate Bosworth'Nona' film premiere, New York,

    Kate Bosworth Helps Launch Campaign for Female Filmmakers

    In her 20-year career in Hollywood, Kate Bosworth has starred in blockbusters like “Superman Returns” as well as indie darlings like 2014’s “Still Alice.” But the actress has always had a desire to get more involved from the ground up. Now, she is partnering with Women In Film and Chloe Wine Collection to launch the [...]

  • Black Panther

    'Black Panther,' 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Westworld' Among Costume Designers Guild Winners

    “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” walked away with top honors at the 21st annual Costume Designers Guild Awards Tuesday night, the final industry guild show before the Oscars on Feb. 24. “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” are up for the Oscar this year, along with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Mary Poppins [...]

  • WGA Writers Contract Talks

    Talent Agents, WGA Achieve Progress in Second Round of Talks

    Hollywood talent agents and the Writers Guild of America have achieved some progress at their second negotiating session over agency regulations, according to sources close to the talks. The two sides met Tuesday, two weeks after their first meeting resulted in both sides criticizing each other, followed by the WGA holding a trio of spirited [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content