The premise of "Fathom" (coming to Apple TV+ on Friday, June 25th) seems like one that is ripe for exploration in a documentary film. It follows two scientists on opposite ends of the world as they try to understand how humpback whales communicate with one another.
Unfortunately, this film gets too far into the sea-weeds, wrapped up in the analytical minutiae of their quest and never giving casual viewers anything to become excited about. The whales themselves could have carried this movie by themselves, so why does "Fathom" feel so land-locked?
Dr. Michelle Fournet and Dr. Ellen Garland have dedicated their lives to the study of humpback whales, with one of them being based in Scotland and the other in Alaska. "Fathom" begins by pulling us in, giving us facts about humpback whales like how they seem to have a very sophisticated - intelligent? - way of communicating with one another via various sounds they make, called "whups." Fascinatingly, the scientists suggest that each whale has its own distinct "whup" that uniquely identifies it. Some of the whale songs and patterns that originate in one part of the world seem to catch on in others, inexplicably. What are these whales saying and what purpose do these "whups" possess?
One of the scientists has tried duplicating a "whup," and attempts to communicate with a whale. The whale at first seems to know that the call is artificial, but eventually seems to acknowledge it. Are we witnessing the first-ever communication between human and humpback whale?
Unlock the wondrous recent Netflix documentary, "My Octopus Teacher," "Fathom" doesn't put us in the story. We're relegated to the sidelines. For some reason, the filmmaker feels that it's more interesting to watch stuffy scientists hypothesize about whale communication in a lab than to actually show us the whales that are generating these mysterious sounds. With "My Octopus Teacher," you really experience life at the bottom of the sea. With "Fathom," you only seem to hear about it.
As an academic feature, "Fathom" might be fascinating to marine biologists or those that really want to understand the scientific process. For everyone else, we just want to see the whales, man. It's an interesting topic, made mundane...an opportunity for more mass awareness of nature and the wonders that exist beneath the surface, lost in translation.
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes.
Featuring: Michelle Fournet, Ellen Garland.
Directed by Drew Xanthopoulos ("The Sensitives").
"Fathom" is available on Apple TV+ on Friday, June 25th, 2021.
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