There’s a great deal of visual enchantment in “Deep Rising,” if a somewhat murky conclusion to be drawn from it all. This second documentary feature from photographer Matthieu Rytz (“Anote’s Ark”) mixes spectacular views of deep ocean life with a gander at opposing sides in a largely under-the-radar international fight over whether to mine minerals from those hitherto unspoiled, barely-explored depths.
Trouble is, the potential consequences are not fully known, nor does the director do a great job of delineating arguments in either the pro- or anti-mining camps. So this conservationist statement ends up seeming a bit vague — albeit in an undeniably beautiful way, with narrator Jason Momoa bringing some marquee value. As aquatic eye candy alone, it should have strong appeal to programmers of non-fiction nature content around the globe.
Rytz opens with John F. Kennedy flubbing his way through a 1963 address announcing “an important national effort to acquire and apply the information about a part of our world that will ultimately determine conditions of life in the rest of the world” — that part being “the seas around us.”
Just what that endeavor consisted of, or led to, is unclear. But later we learn that in the 1970s, as ore prices soared, heavy-duty players including Lockheed Martin and Standard Oil formed a multinational consortium to probe deep-sea mining. Which in turn, combined with scant regulation for international waters, triggered concern among developing nations that “strategic materials of the seabed” might become yet another resource looted by First World corporations. A United Nations attempt at proclaiming the oceans’ depths a “common heritage for humanity” was notably approved by nearly all member nations — but not President Reagan’s U.S. representative.
Decades later, technology has advanced, alongside both commercial and environmentalist will to find “alternative” energy sources, particularly as the impact of climate change grows undeniable. Rytz first introduces us to a man who presents the dashing image of a visionary in this regard, CEO Gerard Barron of Deep Green Resources, recently rebranded as The Metal Company. Flying around giving glossy presentations to electronically-blurred conference attendees and potential investors, he pitches the mining of “deep sea nodules” found in places like the Pacific’s Clarion-Clipperton Zone as a miraculous problem-solver. They “contain all the metals we need to power the green economy,” especially in manufacturing batteries for electric cars. What’s not to like?
Notably unenthused is Dr. Sandor Mulsow, a marine biologist of contrastingly unslick demeanor. He is Director of Environmental Management at the International Seabed Authority, a low-profile but powerful body discreetly headquartered in Jamaica — until he resigns, protesting things are moving too fast “from exploration to exploitation.” He subsequently instigates an independent review of ISA’s activities, citing “lack of transparency and conflict of interests.”
Mulsow takes the long view that these metal-rich nodules have taken many millions of years to form, and are part of the building blocks of Earthly life itself. The seas are not infinite, nor are their ecosystems quick to evolve. What havoc might such mining wreak, let alone on the mysterious creatures still being discovered two miles or more below the ocean surface? Can we afford to toy with a natural balance still barely understood? And for all the “green” PR corporate missionaries like Barron spread, are the fossil-fuel alternatives being sought (when they’re not just a “greenwashing” cover for the same old dirty energy) even the right ones? Have they been chosen simply because they generate profit? It is suggested here that solar and wind are less aggressively pushed by industry precisely because they’re self-sustaining and low-cost.
But these speculations are only mentioned in passing. Barron’s sleek salesmanship may indict itself on a subtextual level, but he is never asked any hard questions. (You’ll find out more about controversies related to him and The Metal Company from its short Wikipedia entry.) The film sets up Muslow as his ideological adversary, but the two men never address or even mention each other. In focusing so much on these contrasting personalities (other officials and experts get just brief airtime), Rytz provides “Deep Rising” with a kind of character-driven narrative structure, but declines to make much of it.
Sounding like he’s rolled out of bed at 3 a.m., Momoa groggily provides alternately philosophical and hyperbolic narration partly derived from marine biologist Helen Scales’ recent tome “The Brilliant Abyss.” It tends to underline that the film, for all its globe-trotting, is less interested in conveying hard information than a general sense of alarm. But that does bolster “Deep Rising’s” success in more poetical terms, as a showcase for incredible underwater sights occasionally interrupted by talking heads, archival footage and business summits.
A long list of entities are credited with providing “deep ocean cinematography” at the end, and the rare glimpse of older such clips demonstrates how far that field has come since the heyday of Jacques Cousteau. We get view after stunning view of variably translucent, iridescent, eye-poppingly colored creatures (many falling into the catch-all category of “jellyfish”) whose surreal shapes and movements defy description. The diversity is mind-blowing — and a humorous if unintended contrast to the official gatherings our human protagonists frequent, which remain as overwhelming white, male and western as the executive strata in “Mad Men.”
As DP on terra firma, Rytz keeps things visually impressive, whether surveying a pristine sunset or the rainforest destruction by mining operations worldwide. Even if its tangle of issues and ideas doesn’t pull together into a coherent thesis, “Deep Rising” is nonetheless edited to lively, fast-paced effect by Elisa Bonora, while Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds heightens an attractive package with a score deftly traversing many instrumental idioms.