“Fathom” – Other than breathing, communication might be the most natural act in the world. By definition, it’s “the imparting or exchanging of news; the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings; and social contact.”
Sounds simple enough, but according to Google, “6,500 languages are spoken in the world today.” If you’ve ever been to a foreign country where you don’t speak the native tongue, simple tasks like ordering off the menu, finding a restroom, or translating a subway map’s intricacies can be as bewildering as dumping 1,000 puzzle pieces on the kitchen table and finding a coherent image.
Where are all the sides, and we have four corners, right?
Dr. Michelle Fournet at Cornell University and Dr. Ellen Garland at the University of St Andrews are staring at an infinitely perplexing brainteaser. They wish to comprehend and decipher whale communication, and more specifically, talk to humpback whales, hope they respond, and also determine their language’s complexity and reach.
“I’m trying to start a conversation,” Dr. Fournet says.
Director Drew Xanthopoulos hopes to start a conversation with a movie audience as he films Fournet’s and Garland’s aqua-journeys in Frederick Sound, Alaska to speak to humpbacks and French Polynesia to listen to the majestic creatures, respectively.
The good doctors do not coordinate together, nor do they meet in person during the movie. Xanthopoulos films and presents the dueling stories as separate, distinct endeavors as we track their seemingly impossible tasks.
It’s a fascinating topic, and but “Fathom” doesn’t translate very well on-screen.
Indeed, Xanthopoulos captures several beautiful shots of the intimate Alaska inlet(s), and after watching this documentary, you might book a flight to the 49th state and camp on the exact spot as Dr. Fournet’s site. Dr. Garland’s travels are less visually wondrous, as she and her boat captain trek all over the open ocean where everywhere looks the same, albeit under bright sunny skies and on crystal blue water. If you enjoy boating in wide-open spaces, Garland’s trip will capture agreeable sentiment.
Of course, this is no vacation, as the two dedicated, accomplished researchers are here to work and race against the clock. They both repeatedly drop their audio equipment in the oceans, as Dr. Fournet speaks to her 50-foot friends through whale calls that she created in the lab, and Dr. Garland intently listens for “song” through her headphones.
The women and their teams face no easy tasks, and especially when the whales didn’t get the memo.
The doc’s first 20 or 30 minutes draw us into the science of whale dialogue, and the scientists map out the verbal patterns, ones that resemble alien syntax in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” (2016). Since the mysterious, majestic beings have existed for millions of years, they are OUR earthly aliens. The film discusses several types of their calls, including droplet, swop, and growl, but the coveted one is the humpbacks’ whup, and it becomes Michelle and Ellen’s focus.
The doc centers around their research, and in fictionalized features, science breakthroughs occur through the magic of screenwriters’ written pages and directors’ watchful eyes and ears. In reality, incredible findings don’t reveal themselves each day, and not in “Fathom”. The women cope with starts, stops, and stalls, and sometimes literally, as Dr. Fournet’s boat engine breaks down and keeps them stranded on land for days, while they only have a month to make meaningful “playbacks” or contacts with the whales. Meanwhile, Dr. Garland’s microphone has a limited range – a mile, perhaps – in the wide-open sea. She’s not trying to find a needle in a haystack but a pin on a 40-acre farm. Sure, her pin is about 66,000 pounds, but the ocean is a massive space.
For much of the last film’s hour, we witness our featured leads pulling and dropping ropes in the water, writing findings in spiral notebooks, and typing away on laptop keys, because that’s the nature of this titanic linguistic endeavor. These repeated moments are necessary for the job, but they rote actions don’t necessarily inspire.
Yes, Xanthopoulos offers several glimpses of whales peaking (and peeking) to the surface, but these snippets don’t feel like nearly enough. The movie could keep this critic riveted for three hours with whale B-roll and facts about humpbacks and other species. How many remain on the planet? What are their personalities like? How do mothers interact with their offspring? How does pollution affect them? How large do they get? I retrieved the whale-size figures in this review through the Internet, not while experiencing the movie.
“Fathom” isn’t that documentary, as its narrow focus doesn’t take broader views for everyday folks. We learn a little about the doctors’ personal lives, which is refreshing, but Dr. Fournet’s moment feels tacked on during the last 20 minutes to fill runtime, which is a slight 83 minutes.
Certainly, the doctors and their assistants perform valuable and captivating work, and “Fathom” communicates clearly, but it doesn’t cinematically speak.
⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐