'Wonders of the Sea 3D': Film Review | San Sebastian 2017

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
The life aquatic, with peaks and troughs.

Arnold Schwarzenegger co-narrates and co-produces Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jean-Jacques Mantello's documentary, premiering at the coastal Spanish festival.

Children, divers, icthyologists and stoners alike will find plenty to float their boats in Wonders of the Sea 3D, a somewhat unlikely collision of two truly world-renowned names: Jacques Cousteau and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A family affair for several descendants of legendary explorer and Palme d'Or-winning filmmaker Cousteau, completed near-exactly two decades after his death, it is co-produced, enthusiastically introduced and co-narrated by California's most famous former governor, a landlubber not previously noted for marine escapades. 

A feast for the eyes but something of a trial for the ears, the film is simultaneously cutting edge in its technology and thuddingly old-fashioned in its gee-whiz tone. Crying out to be seen on the biggest screens possible, it will doubtless score theatrical distribution across the watery globe and should make a bigger splash than Arnie's other 3D enterprise of 2017, the tepidly received conversion of Terminator 2.

Judgment day for the world's oceans may have been hastened by the surprise election of Schwarzenegger's current social-media foe Donald Trump, for whom climate change skepticism is a central tenet of faith. Wonders of the Sea makes occasional reference to such perils, but generally steers a carefully apolitical course, instead celebrating the embattled biodiversity of the natural world in all its crazily colorful and psychedelically bizarre forms.

Structured around a globe-hopping tour (Fiji, Sea of Cortez, Catalina, Bahamas) conducted by energetic, worldly-wise septuagenarian Jean-Michel Cousteau — Jacques's first-born — and his two adult children Celine and Fabien, the doc bombards the viewer with species of all shapes, sizes and hues. Jean-Michel Cousteau and his co-director Jean-Jacques Mantello (2009's Ocean World 3D), working with editor Enzo Mantello, conjure the majesty of undersea creation by training their high-definition 3D cameras close on such delightful oddities as the very trippy-looking giant clam and the tiny nudibranchs, wildly vibrant gastropod molluscs.

The three Cousteaus share narrating duties with Schwarzenegger, and while the Austrian-American will never be mistaken for the next coming of David Attenborough (or indeed Werner Herzog), his contributions as a trained actor have a vivacity and brio which make the diving clan sound stiffly amateurish in comparison. His periodic absences from the narration booth are regrettable, but the awkward shoehorning in of his "I'll be back" catchphrase during a sequence about hammerhead sharks is a clumsy creative capsize.

Anthropomorphisms and cutesy observations abound through the script, every beat of which is heavily underlined by Christophe Jacquelin's near-incessant, aggressively uplifting and wonder-stoking score. Editing emphases are sometimes baffling: An inordinate amount of time is spent observing a pair of lobsters' ambiguous "dance," while a section on octopi ("the soft intelligence of the sea") is frustratingly curtailed. Enough information is imparted about these complex, delicate, brainy critters, however, to place them firmly off-limits as a menu option for discerning diners.

"No animals were eaten" during the four-year production, end credits announce: Indeed, the crew's self-proclaimed vegetarianism largely extends also to their finny subjects, in an enterprise which presents nature as anything but red in tooth and claw. Even the voracious lionfish, which we are told consumes 40 small fry every hour, is seen gobbling up its victims with clinical efficiency and maximum speed. Wonders of the Sea is thus a strange cousin of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, another visually spectacular production with strong nautical elements, which toned down the bloodshed implicit in its subject matter so as not to disturb those junior spectators for whom its educational message was in no small part designed.

Production company: 3D Entertainment Films
Directors: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Mantello
Screenwriters: Jean-Jacques Mantello, Francois Mantello, David Chocron
Producers: Francois Mantello, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Cinematographers: Jean-Jacques Mantello, Gavin McKinney
Editor: Enzo Mantello
Composer: Christophe Jacquelin
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Sales: Conquistador Entertainment, Beverly Hills (pascal@conquistador-ent.com)

83 minutes

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