I remember. “When the ice / becomes the sea/ you will see/ how beautiful we can be.” French singer Émilie Simon’s ethereal voice washed over the ‘scene’. Two emperor penguins mate in Antarctica; their regal bodies form a heart-shaped silhouette against the clear morning sky. The male then spends months incubating the egg, while the female makes the long trek back to sea for nourishment. They take turns. It is, in essence, a tough long-distance marriage.
The year was 2005, and the air conditioner in my cinema hall seemed to be unusually effective. That’s how utterly intimate and immersive March of the Penguins, Luc Jacquet’s Oscar-winning nature documentary, was; it transported us to the most primal corner of the planet, enabling us to learn without losing the ability to feel. I learnt more about gender dynamics, parenthood, families, sacrifice, love, territoriality and most of all – cinema – from this film than most others. Simon’s music played a large role in lending these stunning images a sense of storytelling. A sense of feeling, without fully grasping.
There is no place remote enough for the cameras to invade; at many points, it’s impossible to believe that this isn’t a Pixar movie
Blue Planet 2: One Ocean and The Deep – a combination of two episodes of Sony BBC Earth’s seven-part series – extends this meditative language across different environments. If Penguins was one whole film, Planet is a montage of littler films and narratives unfurling within our oceans. A tern escapes a giant trevally in slow-motion, a bottle-nosed dolphin and killer whale poetically unite after a chase sequence, female walruses quarrel for the last slab of ice to protect their pups, polar bears look on forlornly as global warming melts away their homes, female humphead wrasses transform into males, sharks feed on a whale carcass to fill themselves up for a year – the stories are endless, and the emotions oddly familiar.
There is no place remote enough for the cameras to invade; at many points, it’s impossible to believe that this isn’t a Pixar movie. From the waters of New Zealand to South Mexico, from the underwater forests of Northern Japan to the Arctic Circle in Northern Norway and the depths of Antarctica’s Twilight Zones, we are exposed to the kind of exotic creatures and lives that the very core of cinema stems from.
The cockeyed squid, fang-tooth, lantern fish, six-gilled sharks, zombie worms, the phenomenon of marine snow, barrel-eyed fish with a transparent head filled with jelly so that it can look up through its skull – it’s like an exclusive peek into Georges Méliès, Tim Burton, James Cameron and Michel Gondry’s heads: creative pioneers who must have surely been amphibious citizens of the Mariana Trench in their previous lives. This has to be where their freakish imagination stems from. Cameron, in fact, is famous for his solo sub dive in his vertical torpedo – his fascination for depth, something that critics think is curiously lacking in his movies, took him almost 11 kilometers to the bottom of the Trench in 2012. In this, we see the automated voyagers combing similar portions, and somehow managing to make a striking tale out of some inherently murky footage – like assembling a dark song out of broken verses.
“We know more about the surface of Mars than the deepest part of our seas” – is such a telling indicator of human nature in general. We think in scale, and invariably tend to overlook the versatility of own backyards to service the concept of the great beyond. It’s the reason we have more outer-space movies and alien franchises than underwater sagas. But the seed of exploration begins within. Perhaps the true visionaries and filmmakers were always looking closer to home, before ‘looking upward through their transparent jelly-filled skulls.’
The scores play like they are probing us to notice something new, something unknown, and asking us to admire – but not fear – what we don’t understand
Sir David Attenborough’s voiceover – one that still bears the wide-eyed wonder of a grandfather narrating the magic of Jurassic Park to infants – lends this documentary a more educative theme. But it’s Hans Zimmer’s score that, like Simon’s, transcends the encyclopedic “Did You Know?” undertones of nature cinema. Zimmer seems to have fashioned his sounds on fantasy specialist Danny Elfman’s – violins, choral backgrounds and crescendos dot the vast blueness of our screens. This is just as well, because if you close your eyes and listen to one of Elfman’s original soundtracks – for example, Edward Scissorhands – it is essentially an amalgamation of melodies designed to humanize the anomalies of nature. The scores play like they are probing us to notice something new, something unknown, and asking us to admire – but not fear – what we don’t understand. It’s the music of communicating the fleetingness of a particular scene, one that is punctuated with an operatic feeling so that we don’t forget it after the empty drone of civilization resumes.
That’s what Zimmer, too, achieves with this series. Each note seems to be telling us, “you will see/ how beautiful we can be.” Which, for all means and purposes, is the sound of discovery.
[Blue Planet 2 is currently in Indian cinemas for a limited period]