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Entries in Humpback Whales [2015] (1)


Humpback Whales (2015)

The Voyage Home

Greg MacGillivray’s Humpback Whales may be the breeziest forty minutes I’ve ever spent watching a movie. This cosmic commercial for the delights of being a gargantuan sea creature is light on substance and heavy on message. It’s also utterly hypnotic, thanks, in large part, to Brad Ohlund’s beautiful cinematography and a soundtrack that melds whale song with tropical variations on the American Authors hit, “Best Day of My Life.”

I don’t mean “light on substance and heavy on message” to be as harsh a knock as it sounds. The global humpback population is roughly thirty percent of what it was before mankind invented whaling—so I can’t blame MacGillivray and writer Stephen Judson for peppering their lush, in-the-wild footage with fervent pleas for the viewer to do their part in conserving the planet. They’re also very mysterious animals, and I don’t know how much more information the filmmakers could have injected into the movie. Ironically, Humpback Whales is the “driest” of the IMAX films I’ve watched recently; without the narrative hook of Flight of the Butterflies or the dark historical drama of Rocky Mountain Express, or the mind-blowing mix of history and scientific speculation of Journey to Space, MacGillivray’s documentary serves as, more or less, a straightforward whale-watching show.

The contrast between the film’s lively music and Ewan McGregor’s mellow narration put me in a kind of trance. Or maybe it was all that deep blue ocean photography and the whales’ incongruously massive forms and graceful movements that set my mind to thinking about other things. While McGregor described the abnormally complex social system that a pair of whales in the Antarctic developed—one created by two humpbacks nicknamed “Melancholy” and “Vulture” to more efficiently catch food—I thought of Jaws, and Quint’s horrific account of sharks picking off the crew of the USS Indianapolis.

Later, researchers talk about an elaborate mating ritual, in which a female humpback courts as many as twenty male suitors. Gradually, the showboating dudes fall away, until one is left standing (er…floating), and the two lovers disappear for some apparently hot and heavy mating. The fact that scientists have never actually observed whales doing the deed makes this scenario seem even more like an episode of The Bachelorette, with life taking a quick sponsor break just as the Fantasy Suite door coyly closes.

And I’d be remiss in leaving out the most obvious reference, which the filmmakers practically speak aloud for me. Humpback Whales opens with a shot of the stars, and draws parallels with the ancient and elusive creatures’ otherworldly language and habits. What if the writers of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home were onto something, and not just on something?

I realize that we will likely not have the same experience with this film, mostly because I'm a demonstrably imbalanced human being. But I highly recommend Humpback Whales as the HD equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank, a primal and relaxing escape to a place where life’s greatest challenge is avoiding boats while swimming across the world. I can’t believe how quickly it all went by, and how great the pull is to dive back in.