THE Father of Diving’, Jacques Cousteau, is the subject of Jerome Salle’s biopic The Odyssey – out in cinemas now.
It is a film well worth watching if only to remind us that Cousteau was the Neil Armstrong of the oceans who cared more for self-publicity than protecting the world’s oceans from man’s destructive influence (an issue his son Philippe was far more passionate about).
As Salle’s film highlights, Cousteau was no stranger to the big-screen having won a Palme d’Or for his underwater documentary The Silent World (1956). Handsome and self-confident, he was as comfortable with a microphone in his hand as he was on board Calypso arranging dives.
So, with Cousteau’s return to our cinematic consciousness, it is a fitting time to reflect on the theme of diving in films over the years.
Just this past month, Netflix released environment-focused documentary Chasing Coral. The film takes cameras deep in our oceans to shine a light on the tragic effect climate change is having on coral life (an issue touched upon towards the end of The Odyssey when Philippe takes his wife to the waters he learnt to dive in as a child, only to be horrified by the depletion of the coral).
Images of colourful and diverse marine beauty are juxtaposed against the spreading desolation of coral life – enough to fuel anyone’s outrage. It is the type of filmmaking I imagine Cousteau (late to conservation) would be driving if he (and Philippe) were still alive.
Chasing Coral’s striking message also takes the viewer back to Courtney Barnett’s lines in her harrowing song Kim’s Caravan: ‘The Great Barrier reef it ain’t so great anymore/ It’s been raped beyond belief, the dredgers treat it like a whore.’
More underwater tragedy was on display last year in Juan Reina’s documentary Diving Into the Unknown. This told the redemptive story of a group of Finnish drivers. After losing two of their teammates in caves 130 metres below the surface, the survivors return to embark upon an illegal and hazardous dive to recover their bodies.
As well as painting a fascinating portrait of hardened and stoic Scandinavian males, Diving Into the Unknown captures the risks taken by these brave explorers. The resources of cinematographer Tuukka Kovasiipi were also pushed to the limit as he attempted to capture the beauty of these tight and labyrinthic underwater caves through GoPro cameras.
Diving, with all its associated dangers, has long been a feature of horror films. Steven Spielberg’s iconic killer-shark film Jaws (1975) scared people out of the water. Yet one of its most frightening scenes is shark-less. When Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) dives to find Ben Gardner’s boat, a ghostly white and decaying head appears out of the murky darkness – a moment of terror that is arguably Jaws’ finest.
In 1989, a few filmmakers looking for a change of scenery from space-based science-fiction horror decided to go underwater. This aquatic setting offered many of the same scare and tension-friendly attributes as space – darkness, the unknown and an unlikely rescue. With this, divers in big clunky equipment, not too dissimilar visually from spacesuits, were up against the same type of alien creatures movie characters had been running from in space.
Among these films was George P Cosmatos’ Leviathan, which borrowed from the mutating alien plot of John Carpenter’s The Thing, but failed to recreate the same paranoia-filled tension. Likewise, Sean Cunningham’s amusing creature feature Deepstar Six and, most lasting, James Cameron’s The Abyss.
Ten years later, star-studded movie Sphere saw diving and science-fiction horror cross paths once again – albeit with disappointing effect. With its failure, in-water horror edged away from science-fiction and back towards shark flicks.
Low-budget films like Open Water (2004) and The Reef (2010) saw idyllic holiday settings turned into nightmarish survival situations. Holidaying divers are left isolated in the middle of the ocean while night comes and ominous fins circle.
Meanwhile, Dark Tide (2012) and 47 Metres Down (in cinemas now) see thrill-seeking divers jump into shark-infested waters with terrifying consequences.
Sharks are not the only worry for diving couple Sam (Jessica Alba) and Jared (Paul Walker), in rightfully ridiculed movie Into the Blue (2005). The couple have to contend with a violent drug lord as they dive for $6billion worth of treasure. Deep sea treasure is also on the agenda for Ben (Matthew McConaughey) and Tess (Kate Hudson) in equally dismissed romance-comedy Fools Gold (2008).
More thoughtful comedy is served up in Wes Anderson’s The Life of Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Starring Bill Murray and Cate Blanchet, Anderson pays homage to Cousteau in his typically eccentric style.
Speaking of style, the world’s most famous spy James Bond goes diving to combat the baddies in Thunderball (1965) and License to Kill (1989). Thunderball’s opening title sequence sees a silhouetted feminine figure swimming away from a harpoon-wielding diver, while Tom Jones belts out the theme song.
Heroes of a different kind have also donned diving gear on the big-screen. George Tillman’s Men of Honour (2000) tells the true life story of Carl Brashear – an African American diver looking to overcome discrimination and adversity in the United States Navy.
The film’s most memorable scene, however, takes place outside of the water. Brashear (Cuba Gooding Jnr), dressed in full diving gear and burdened with a tragic injury, attempts to prove competency by walking 12 steps across a courtroom.
Less memorable is 2012’s box-office flop Big Miracle. Greenpeace volunteer Rachel (Drew Barrymore) secretly dives below the ice to get close to the whales that are perilously trapped.
It would be a remiss not to mention Disney’s 1954 ground-breaking film 20,000 Leagues Under the Ocean – based on the book by Jules Verne (which gets a sighting in The Odyssey). Abroad the Nautilus, our diving team famously battle against a giant squid.
In this science- fiction classic, James Mason shines as inventor Captain Nemo. His name inspired the title of Disney’s 2003 animated film Finding Nemo where young fish Nemo is taken from the ocean – and his father – by a screen-engulfing human diver. The goggles the diver leaves behind provide a vital clue for Marlin and Dory to track down Nemo.
A recent favourite is The Shallows (2016) where surfer Nancy (Blake Lively) has a frightening encounter with a Great White. Nancy’s swimming and diving skills become her greatest weapon against her gigantic nemesis.
Indeed, sharks are a big theme in The Odyssey as Cousteau’s divers search the shark infested waters of the Persian Gulf in pursuit of oil. In one beautiful – but frightening scene – the fearless Philippe is circled by sharks but continues to film despite the protestations of his fellow divers.
As The Odyssey proves, our fascination with the oceans of the world – and what lurks within – remains unsated. It will continue to supply film directors with a rich vein of cinematic themes, especially as the fragility of the planet’s marine life (belatedly acknowledged by Jacques Cousteau) becomes increasingly evident.
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