Mission Blue: Santa Barbara Review

True Blue Films
A documentary that goes beyond inspirational messaging to offer practical solutions. 

The producer of "The Cove" returns with a new film about the world’s threatened oceans and the acclaimed scientist who advocates for their protection.

The planet’s imperiled oceans find their champion in Sylvia Earle, America’s foremost oceanographer of the past several decades and the focus of Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon’s excellent, engaging documentary. Ready-made for broadcast outlets, the film could also find a home theatrically, based on its impressive pedigree and compelling subject matter.

More than a basic profile pic, Mission Blue dives into the most urgent issues threatening marine habitats today, including ocean pollution, climate change and collapsing fisheries. Having grown up in Florida, Earle has a special affinity for the Gulf of Mexico, site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout. As the worst offshore oil spill ever in the U.S., that disaster serves as an ongoing reminder throughout the film of humanity’s still-uneasy relationship with the oceans.

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When Earle was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, things were different — marine ecosystems worldwide were overall fairly healthy and stable. Her interest in the natural history of the oceans led to university science degrees and eventually a Ph.D. in marine botany, specifically the biology of seaweeds. But it was her thirst for discovery that took Earle out of the classroom on marine research expeditions around the world and eventually beneath the waves to explore the depths of the oceans. “Underwater, that’s where I feel at home,” she reflects at one point in the film, noting that the era of the ’60s and ’70s was one of unprecedented scientific discovery, an assertion affirmed by frequent shots of Earle joyfully exploring the oceans.

On this journey of exploration, Earle has served as a field researcher, chief scientist for the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, business entrepreneur, member of numerous nonprofit conservation and scientific organization boards, and as a prestigious National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. Over the decades, Earle has continued to research the world’s oceans, still scuba diving well into her 70s, and it’s her 7,000-plus hours underwater that perhaps best demonstrate her commitment to marine conservation and education.

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So it comes as little surprise that Insurgent Media’s Stevens, scuba diver, multi-hyphenate filmmaker and producer of Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, first encountered Earle on one of her research trips, an expedition to the Galapagos Islands to raise awareness among scientists and activists for her “Mission Blue” initiative to establish global marine sanctuaries as “hope spots” to protect ocean life and regenerate degraded ecosystems.

While the science behind Earle’s conservation project is fascinating, it’s her natural charisma and infectious enthusiasm that are most compelling onscreen. As one of the first and foremost American women oceanographers, she became a standard-bearer among female field-research scientists, while also marrying and raising a family, long before the term “supermom” ever entered the lexicon. Hearing Avatar director and marine explorer James Cameron, the world record holder for deepwater solo submersible diving, speak of Earle with respect and affection appropriately demonstrates the breadth and depth of her influence.

Together with co-director and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Robert Nixon, Stevens shadowed Earle over three years of ocean expeditions and globe-trotting on the international lecture circuit, engaging her in lively interviews and participating in diving and research trips. “I’ve come to speak for the oceans,” Earle says in one of her many presentations, much as Dr. Seuss’ Lorax spoke for the trees. While the film follows a typical “save the planet arc,” one of Earle's principal challenges is illustrated by an appearance before a government panel in a nearly empty hearing room: Even in her position as a global conservation leader, capturing the attention of the influential and powerful can still be a challenge.

However, Earle’s leadership with her Mission Blue marine conservation organization, countless media appearances and lectures (including as a TED prizewinner), along with her popular and celebrated scientific writings, offer hope that one person really does have the wherewithal to positively influence the fate of the planet.

The doc's underwater sequences, captured by expert cinematographer Bryce Groark, speak as eloquently as Earle about the beauty and fragility of the oceans, which now seem to be entering a period of increased instability likely brought about by the cumulative effects of climate change. Editor Peter R. Livingston Jr. skillfully weaves together Fisher and Nixon’s footage with Earle family home movie clips, archival photos and newsreel segments to round out the portrait of an extraordinary scientist and activist. The film’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival world premiere held special significance for the hometown audience, since it’s dedicated to local underwater cinematographer and festival supporter Mike deGruy, who’s featured in the doc before he died in a helicopter crash in 2012.

Production: Insurgent Media, Hope Spots Company, Diamond Docs, True Blue Films

Directors: Fisher Stevens, Robert Nixon

Screenwriters: Mark Monroe, Jack Youngelson

Producers: Erik H. Gordon, Fisher Stevens, Robert Nixon, Jack Youngelson, Peter R. Livingston Jr.

Executive producers: Julie Nives, Andrew S. Karsch

Directors of photography: Damien Drake, Axel Baumann, Bryce Groark

Editor: Peter R. Livingston Jr.

Music: Will Bates

No rating, 95 minutes