Friday, April 9, 2021

The Sea Around Us: A Review



It's rare when a serious nonfiction book is turned into somewhat schlocky documentary, but don't count out Irwin Allen's ability to turn somber into sensationalist. While The Sea Around Us was quite innovative for its time, and did influence future nature films, it's quite dated today. 

Based on Rachel Carson's book on marine life, The Sea Around Us features narration that shifts from Genesis to Darwin to start its documenting of the mysteries of the deep. "This then is the Sea Around Us: born of the rain, cradled in the deep, guided by the Moon" we are told by one of its two narrators.

As we hop and skip around the ocean depths and various beachheads, we see all sorts of creatures, from tiny plankton to massive commercial fishing ships. We're treated to a battle royale between an octopus and a shark, along with such sights as shark walkers and crab herders, baby turtles and melting glaciers. All of these mysteries and wonders, however, are in peril. "What is the fate of the world? Is this The End?" we are asked in bold letters.

In some ways, The Sea Around Us is prescient in its warnings about the state of the oceans. It's a delicate balance between the needs of Man and the abuse of the waters. As a side note though, seeing that glaciers have been melting since at least 1952 can both help or hurt the cause of global warming/climate change if both sides can say it's been going on for over half a century.

The film also has some simply beautiful moments. A sequence involving the Nudibranch species is quite beautiful and arresting. The Sea Around Us also pioneered the manner of many future nature documentaries with its mix of footage, offbeat narration and music. It can be considered a precursor to the Walt Disney True Life Adventures series of documentaries.

In other ways however, The Sea Around Us is pretty bad. This is the type of film that while innovative at the time now looks like something you'd show to a bored elementary school class. The narration, written by Allen, seems more interested in being cutesy and/or clever than informative. When discussing microscopic marine life, the narration says "All movement is motivated by a desire to eat or not to be eaten", and the bit about shark walkers (men who wake drugged sharks for marine parks in the Sea World vein) was almost silly. 

Whether the octopus/shark fight is real or staged I don't know, but somehow it looks now like something out of Ed Wood. For a documentary about the "wilderness of water", there's a lot of above-water moments that seem a bit off.

Anyone who is old enough to remember when educational videos were on reel-to-reel cameras and shown in classrooms would think they'd seen The Sea Around Us even if they hadn't. It just has that literal old-school feel. A bit sensationalistic in its approach to nature to where one sees why Carson never allowed another film adaptation of her work, The Sea Around Us has good moments but not enough to keep people fully engaged.

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