The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52


The deep blue.

(2021) Nature Documentary (Bleecker Street) Joseph George, Joshua Zeman, John Hildebrand, John Calambokidis, Christopher W. Clark, Ana Sirovic, Bill Watkins, David Rothenberg, Bruce Mate, Daniel Palacios, Robert Dziak, Vinal Virga, Kate Micucci, Cate Muret. Directed by Joshua Zeman

 

In 1989 as the Cold War came to an end, technology used to monitor Soviet submarine movement detected something unusual; whale song on the 52 Hz range, much higher than what whales normally communicate on. Marine biologist Bill Watkins tracked the sound for some fifteen years afterwards, noting that the sound came from a single whale with nary a reply.

After a 2004 New York Times article, the imagination of the public was captured. While scientists wondered if this might signal the existence of a heretofore undiscovered species of whale, the public began to see 52, as it was popularly known, as a symbol for the increasing isolation people were feeling in these tech-savvy times, and celebrating their own uniqueness. Artwork, songs, essays and even tattoos were generated by folks who were captivated by the story of a cetacean, endlessly searching the ocean, calling out and waiting for a response that never came.

Few were as captivated as documentary filmmaker Joshua Zeman (Cropsey) who wanted to find 52, which as one scientist put it, “finding a needle in a haystack would have considerably better odds.” He put together a campaign to fund an expedition, but could only raise enough for an expedition for seven days.

The film chronicles the expedition, and adds quite a bit of background material, ranging from the effect of giant container ships on whales (their passing through the shipping lanes creates a kind of noise pollution that makes it nearly impossible fo the whales, who rely on sonar, to communicate) to the ravages of the whaling industry (not for the faint of heat or weak of stomach) and the effect of 52 on popular culture. Comedian Kate Micucci contributes a song, and perhaps most compelling of all, musician David Rothenberg jams with the whales on clarinet.

Overall the movie is a bit disjointed. The story flow just isn’t there as Zeman goes off on tangents that at times feel like filler. The best parts of the movie, other than Rothenberg’s “jam sessions,” is watching the scientists go about their business, and their excitement at the prospect of finding the answer to a question that previously had none. You might want to watch the movie all the way to the end – there is a graceful coda that is uplifting and might just put a smile on your face.

We have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals, even those in the animal protection business can sometimes attribute emotions to animals that they may or may not be able to feel. There’s no way to truly know if 52 feels loneliness; what does he/she have to compare it with, after all? But be that as it may, this is a truly fascinating documentary that is well worth the visit.

The movie is currently in theaters, but will be available on most major streaming platforms beginning Friday July 16th.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating and uplifting. Always interesting to watch scientists in their element.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not presented in a really organized manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some upsetting animal cruelty images and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonardo di Caprio, who contributed $50,000, was given credit as an executive producer. Much of the rest of the funding came from a Kickstarter campaign.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Chimera Strain

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Kong: Skull Island


Kong goes ape!

(2017) Adventure (Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, Allyn Rachel, Robert Taylor, Thomas Middleditch (voice), Beth Kennedy. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

 

Some monsters capture the imagination like no other. So it has been with Kong, the giant ape who since his first appearance in 1933 has been a mainstay in cinematic lore. There have been three American remakes of the original; in 1976, 2005 and now.

It is 1973 and the United States is withdrawing its troops from Vietnam. That doesn’t sit so well with Major Preston Packard (Jackson). However, before he and his boys can return home he is given a new assignment to accompany a scientific team to a remote island near Southeast Asia.

The scientists are led by Dr. Bill Randa (Goodman) whose Hollow Earth theories have been largely discredited and who is ostensibly researching seismic activity on the island but unknown to the soldiers that are accompanying him, as well as former SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), an anti-war activist who smells a big story. Is she ever right!

Their helicopter fleet is smashed to pieces by a gigantic ape 100 feet tall. The survivors are separated and try to make their way to a rendezvous point with their ship on the north shore of the island. The military men are trying to hunt down other survivors while Major Packard seethes; he wants to take out the ape that decimated his men. The civilians find their way to a human settlement where they find a surprising discovery; an aviator named Hank Marlow (Reilly) who has been stranded on the island since World War II.

Their job is to find a way off the island but it is far more perilous than just a single giant ape. There are other gigantic creatures (water buffalo, for example, and Daddy Long Leg spiders with legs as long as tree trunks. Worse, there are reptilian creatures that have ascended from the depths of the Earth and are only held back from mass destruction by Kong, who kills the bad boys on sight. And just between you and me I’d rather have Kong on my side than against.

I will give Vogt-Roberts credit; he knows how to keep the action going. This is definitely a roller coaster ride of a movie. But as roller coasters go, this one is a bit tamer than I expected. Peter Jackson’s 2005 magnum opus has nightmarish critters that range from dinosaurs to gigantic insects to things that have never existed and thank God for that. There are some creatures here (a giant octopus for example) but none really have the creepy factor that Jackson’s movie had and even the Big Bads – the Skullcrawlers as Marlow dubs them – are not as nightmare-inducing as they could be.

Hiddleston has paid his dues in a number of supporting roles and is more than ready to take on a heroic lead, but for some reason his performance here feels muted. I know he has tons of screen presence – I’ve seen it and not just in the Marvel appearances as Loki – but he doesn’t have much here. It’s sad too because I think this was a good role for him. Faring better is Reilly who damn near steals the movie as Marlow, who isn’t always sure if he’s thinking or speaking with often hilarious results. He’s one of the best reasons to see this movie.

Like all the Kong movies before it this is a boy’s club with a token woman to tame the beast, although that really doesn’t happen here. This is also set entirely on Skull Island; Kong doesn’t go to New York or anywhere else. Larsen is an actress whose stock is on the rise, but her role seems like nobody really knew what to do with her. Mason Weaver is no damsel in distress and that’s a good thing for women everywhere, but part of the Kong mythos requires one and the movie feels lacking without one.

A movie with a budget of $190 million dollars should not leave the viewers feeling meh but that’s what this one did for me. Maybe I expected more out of a Kong movie than just a slambang action film; it needed to have an epic feel to it and to my mind that’s just what it lacked. All three of the preceding Kong movies had it but I suppose sooner or later that streak would have to come to an end. Given that this is part of a new Monsterverse that started with the Godzilla reboot of a couple of years ago and will include some of the most well-known giant monsters from Japan and the United States, you would think that more care would be taken to keep this franchise viable. I hope they can bring back that larger than life feeling again; what good are giant monsters without it?

REASONS TO GO: Some of the monsters are spectacular. Reilly just about steals the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie plods a bit in the middle. It’s not as exciting as other giant monster films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some pretty scary monsters; there’s also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The appearance of Kong (the shape of his face and so on) was based on the look of the original 1933 Kong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Exodus