Fathom (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Two scientific researches on whale sounds

Documentary film “Fathom”, which is available on Apple TV+ at present, alternates between two different researches on the sounds of humpback whales, but it somehow only ends up merely scratching the surface in both cases. Probably because both of these two researches are just two small steps toward whatever will be eventually discovered in the future, the documentary remains coolly and distantly philosophical about its main subject, and you may be disappointed if you expect it to be your typical nature documentary.

At first, we get to know a bit about two female scientists at the center of the documentary: Dr. Michelle Fournet and Dr. Ellen Garland. While Dr. Fournet has dedicated herself to recreating the communication sounds of humpback whales in Alaska, Dr. Garland has devoted herself to making a map of communication sounds shared and developed among those humpback whales inhabiting across the South Pacific Ocean, and both of them have been quite curious about the elusive aspects of the communication sounds of humpback whales. Although these two female scientists have recorded many different sounds from humpback whales, but these whale sounds remain rather unfathomable even at present, and now you may be reminded of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986), where the mysterious sonic language of humpback whales turns out to be the solution to an inexplicable global emergency on the Earth.

In case of Dr. Fournet, she and her colleagues have tried to imitate a number of communication sounds of humpback whales even though they do not know what exactly these sounds mean. At one point, Dr. Fournet jokes about how the result of their recent attempt sounded too silly, but now they have a better version to be tested in Alaska later, though nothing is certain in their ongoing project. When she later arrives at one remote spot in Alaska along with a colleague of hers and their graduate assistant, they all look hopeful at first, but things soon become monotonous as their field research seems to be going nowhere, and there also come a few big problems to deal with.

On the opposite, Dr. Garland’s research looks relatively less frustrating as she and her colleagues work under the warm and sunny weather of the French Polynesia, but they also come to face some obstacles despite the hopeful beginning of their field research. As the end of her field research is approaching, Dr. Garland wants to continue her field study a bit more, but she also misses her loving husband a lot, who has always understood and supported her academic passion for many years.

Just like Dr. Garland, Dr. Fournet cannot help but feel pressured at times as a female scientist who often has to prove herself more than many male peers around her. I am sure both of these two female scientists can tell a lot about how they have managed to balance themselves between their work and private life, but the documentary does not delve that deep into that aspect while maintaining its detached attitude as before, and that is a little disappointment for us.

In case of those humpback whales, I must tell you that they do not make much appearance throughout the documentary, while usually represented by the research data and samples associated with their communication sound. We never get to know anything about those humpback whales studied by Dr. Fournet and Dr. Garland, and the documentary only marvels at how much humpback whales and other kinds of whales have steadily evolved in their own way during last 40 million years. They are surely considerably intelligent creatures to be admired and respected, but the documentary detachedly reminds me of what W.G. Sebald once said: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be impressed by the considerable efforts shown from both Dr. Fournet and Dr. Garland in the documentary. Although there are still lots of stuffs to be elucidated in both of their scientific researches, they still can move forward bit by bit at least, and there is a touching moment when Dr. Garland happens to discover a new kind of communication sound she has never heard, and we can only hope that this will be another puzzle piece to help her current mapping process on the communication sounds among the humpback whales of the French Polynesia.

On the whole, “Fathom” is engaging to some degree, and director Drew Xanthopoulos, who also handled the cinematography of his documentary, did a fairly competent job of handling his main subjects with enough respect and interest, but it is also often limited by its dry and restrained approach. I understand that it is not intended to entertain or educate us from the beginning, but it fails to generate enough synergy between its two different narratives in my humble opinion, and I must confess that I found myself becoming impatient more than once during my viewing.

By the way, as watching the circular graphic presentation of a humpback whale sound shown in the middle of the documentary, I could not help but think of the similar one shown in recent SF film “Arrival” (2016), which memorably shows how decoding and then understanding an alien language can open the door to new possibilities out there for the humanity. I do not know whether decoding the whale sounds will make any difference on the humanity, and I am sure that will be a pretty awesome news to say the least.

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