Fathom 2021 Movie Review
No matter how difficult the topic, a great documentary keeps the audience invested in the stakes at hand through both form and content while elucidating some measure of substantial information about the subject. Simply put, they make us care for people, histories, conflicts, or natural occurrences that might have been foreign to us before walking into the theater or pressing play. Failure to do so renders the film closer to a dull scholarly lesson.
For all its serene water vistas, “Fathom,” from director Drew Xanthopoulos, falls into the latter category. The story of two scientists separately investigating the meaning and patterns of the sounds humpback whales emit is caught in an indecisive dilemma: It begrudgingly tries to make a point, with just a couple lines of dialogue, about the stoicism the field demands of women, even though it’s obvious the film’s sole focus is on the research they are carrying out. The balance between the humanistic and academic is way off.
One half of the equation, Dr. Michelle Fournet, has traveled to Alaska for yet another season deciphering the whales’ “whup,” a term she coined to describe a specific cry she believes is a form of greeting among the species. The strategy to survey the whales involves using a high-tech underwater speaker to reproduce the whups and then wait for a response. This is repeated several times in a day with the help of two other women assisting Fournet.
Intercutting with those segments, which run long and repetitive, is Dr. Ellen Garland’s search. She heads to French Polynesia in the South Pacific to study whether there are language networks, implying the existence of a shared culture between whales living all over the world’s oceans. For 20 years, she has been listening to whales’ piercing chants.
Both researchers’ trips have limited days allocated, though it’s not clear if that’s because of finances or if it’s tied entirely to the migration of the animals. Xanthopoulos’ modicum of interest in the protagonists outside their findings makes the human beings feel like a minimal afterthought to fill some gaps. There’s a touching scene showing Garland with her husband before departing, and one of Fournet discussing her ideal relationship with a friend.
The filmmaker attempts to engage us with animated visualizations of the whales’ songs — presented as sound waves congregating as part of a large whole in the form of a circle, or appearing as energy explosions against a dark background — to signify the connections between the calls across the globe and across time. And while taking the whales’ mode of communication and presenting it in a more tactile manner represents the documentary’s artistic high point, the concepts remain rather abstract in the words of the experts.
Without real conflict (there’s nothing indicating that this is their final chance to make progress in their research) and with pacing that drags with procedural minutiae, “Fathom” is excessively dry and insular in its approach and insight. More regrettably, it fails to signal why these discoveries should galvanize the average person: Why is this research so significant for human interactions with the natural world? Why is this subject so important to these two brilliant women?
Recent (and baffling) Oscar-winner “My Octopus Teacher” comes to mind as an example of a nature documentary in which the human protagonist’s ego overpowers the scientific inquisitiveness of the film. “Fathom,” conversely, exists at the opposite end of the spectrum, as it never zooms out from its hyper-focused intellectual pursuit. Nor does it include much footage of the whales themselves. (Not that there aren’t other movies with those images, but their absence here feels glaring.)
These quibbles aren’t meant to suggest that the filmmaker dramatically downplay the complexity of the jargon and data, but rather to make it more accessible in tone; simplifying the way terms, practices, and the meaning of it all are expressed would greatly benefit the documentary. Learning that whales have been “speaking” to each other for millions of years is mind-blowing, but we never learn how these brilliant doctors became fascinated with these mammals or how they even got into their professions. Were their parents scientists? Did they develop interest at an early age?
“Fathom” is a movie missing a third act. Near the end, it meanders because its conclusion feels less like a revelation and more like an anticlimactic confirmation of what was assumed all along. Furthermore, there’s never overlap between Fournet and Garland. Parallels between their individual conclusions are never drawn, and they never meet nor even acknowledge each other’s existence. In an ultra-niche field like theirs, it seems unlikely that they don’t at least know one another.
Even stranger is the fact that Xanthopoulos wouldn’t seek to bring these minds together to discuss the ideas to which they’ve dedicated their lives or to tackle the personal, emotional setbacks of their profession. Instead, “Fathom” fizzles away with some text over the screen, as the haunting voices of whales in the deep sing in unison, saying goodbye to a forgettable take on a potentially engrossing subject.