Fathom gorgeously depicts the life of marine researchers, although its narrative is more of a shrimp than a whale.
Apple TV+ documentary Fathom was released on the streaming service on June 25, 2021.
Like many works of art and entertainment released over the past eighteen months, Fathom can’t help but feel evocative of the pandemic. The documentary, streaming on Apple TV+ today, depicts the plight of several scientists studying whale calls. Living in isolation, they spend each day attempting to communicate with humpbacks; lowering recorded messages in the depths in the hope that someone will return their call.
Dr. Michelle Fournet and Dr. Ellen Garland study whale sounds. They’re introduced in staccato, disjointed filmmaking. Soundbites and explanatory text are overlaid on shots of the scientists going about their work. Orchestral music stirs and rises. This prologue is Fathom’s weakest stretch, clumsily setting things up before we head to Alaska, where the remainder takes place.
Their focus is “the whup,” a particular whale call they believe can be used to shine light upon the vast networks and culture of Humpbacks. Whale calls have “rhythm, toned breathing, rhyming, and repetition,” we learn, and whales are able to learn songs from others. The detail within each song allows Fournet and Garland to map the population via song evolution.
In the middle of nowhere (albeit beautiful nowhere, on the coast of Alaska) the scientists go out onto the water to lower their prerecorded whale call into the depths. They wait patiently for someone, the right someone, to respond.
Fathom excels as a depiction of the scientific method. Every day they carry out an identical process, carefully recording their results, reading charts, and taking notes –– all to prove something they already believe in. While their focus is on whales, director Drew Xanthopoulos’ is the scientists. His camera is trained on Fournet and Garland as they look out at the ocean, hoping to see a spout on the horizon. They wait patiently for days and days; despite obstacles and limitations that bump up the otherwise slight narrative, they believe in their research. The researchers have long since adjusted to isolation, but Xanthopoulos provides numerous scenes where their feelings are discussed. It helps that rather than being inside a tiny apartment, they wake up to an awe-inspiring vista each morning.
The film is gorgeously shot (Xanthopoulos does double duty as the film’s cinematographer), but the beauty comes into conflict with the film’s themes. At times it tries to convey the monotony of research but it’s undercut by the unspoken notion that if you want a documentary to be bought by a streamer it better look like a Terrance Malick movie. There’s something to be said for work being tolerable if it’s in a beautiful location, but whatever it is doesn’t make for a compelling narrative.
But what drives Fournet and Garland is their passion; their belief that whales have their own culture and network for communication. They are looking for proof of none other than a worldwide sonar network, with whales communicating across the globe and learning from others. To find evidence that both as a species and as individuals, we are not alone.
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