Against All Odds
Published on June 23rd, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer1
Before watching Nick Stringer’s charming documentary “Turtle: The Incredible Journey,” narrated by the English actress Miranda Richardson, all that I knew about loggerhead sea turtles were that the majority of them nested on beaches in the southeastern United States, and that following birth, their tiny hatchlings braved a treacherous crawl to the ocean. So the beginning of Stringer’s film, which follows a female loggerhead’s twenty-one-year, 10,000-kilometer voyage from birth to motherhood, seemed engagingly familiar, while nevertheless it succeeded in both increasing my scant knowledge of loggerheads and piquing my curiosity about what would happen to the little turtle after she entered the ocean.
Over the course of the film’s eighty well-edited minutes (it opens tomorrow at Regal Union Square), we witness the turtle grow from minuscule to enormous as she swims across the Atlantic Ocean and back, meeting all sorts of creatures—food, friends and foes alike—along the way. We see her turn from prey to predator, from dodging a crab as a newborn to feasting on a crab as a juvenile. Thanks to her skills as a navigator, swimmer and hunter, but most of all thanks to unbelievable luck—only one in 10,000 loggerheads live long enough to reproduce, she reaches the age of twenty-one and mates with a male turtle in the Caribbean. (Cue the romantic music and soft lighting.) She then returns to the beach where she was born, lays her eggs and thus fulfills her life’s purpose, a purpose she will re-fulfill every two or three years for several subsequent decades.
Like every good biography, “Turtle” is filled with the protagonist’s encounters with other individuals and groups, and the inevitable conflicts and standoffs that thereby arise. Early in the film, after entering the Gulf Stream, the baby turtle makes her way into a large floating mass of seaweed known as sargassum, where she finally gets to sleep and where she will live, feed and grow with a multitude of other marine animals as she floats across the Atlantic. When a massive cargo ship barrels into the sargassum and rips it to shreds, we fear for our young protagonist’s life but are quickly reassured and impressed to learn that, unlike most of her fellow seaweed dwellers, such as seahorses, she is able to move on, although not without facing further peril. Homeless and hungry, she swims toward and nibbles a clump of shiny, colorful plastic debris, remnants of some human celebration that could kill her if she swallows them. It’s a simple moment that should make viewers think twice about ever letting a balloon drift off into the sky again.
But “Turtle” also frequently allows us to forget about the world of humans in order to marvel at the vast and mysterious world of the ocean, a world that never ceases to fascinate because we are always mere visitors to it. As land dwellers, we can never be more than tourists of the sea, a place that rivals outer space as a source of human wonder. And perhaps for that reason, but also due to the filmmakers’ great skills, we are at times able to forget that movie cameras surround the turtle as she swims among hammerhead sharks, jellyfish (a tasty turtle treat), stingrays, dolphins and humpback whales.
Although Richardson’s narration is an element obviously foreign to the turtle’s world, her vocal delivery is warm and flowing, harmonizing effectively with the subject matter. The only real sonic disruption is the orchestral music, which continually inflects scenes with drama to emphasize the danger of one moment, the joy of another. This traditional musical accompaniment detracts from the strangeness that can make a journey through the sea so fantastic. A more experimental score, or less reliance upon the score, might have both preserved the sensation of otherworldliness and intruded less upon our vicarious experience of the turtle’s life and the question this film answers, “What is it like to be a female loggerhead sea turtle?”
“Turtle” succeeds as a broadly accessible and engaging film by striking many a balance: between location and studio footage, between silence, score and narration, between concern over global warming and confidence in loggerhead sea turtles’ resilience as a forty-million-year-old species, between scientific education and dramatic entertainment, between the turtle’s life in the unadulterated wild and her encounters with humans, our machines and our things, between critiquing the threats humans pose and acknowledging the progress that loggerhead conservationists have accomplished, and most of all, between occasional anthropomorphism of the turtle and her neighbors and the evocation of these animals’ genuine otherness.
In creating a balanced film, Stringer steers clear of any controversies, such as the hotly debated causes and effects of global warming, to achieve political neutrality, thereby avoiding alienation of any segment of the general population. SeaWorld Pictures perhaps preferred it this way, and one wonders if that company influenced the ways in which this U.K./German/Austrian co-production was produced, edited and/or re-edited.
Still, “Turtle: The Incredible Journey” does make it clear that, among the variety of threats faced by loggerheads, humans are by far the most dire; but it also maintains that through increasing awareness of these creatures and the way that our activities affect them, we can take steps to help ensure their continued existence. It is a cautiously optimistic film—perhaps too optimistic—but by ending on a hopeful note and including a website, www.saveourseas.com/turtlefilm, it attempts to spur viewers to action, knowing that educating us about and endearing us to loggerhead sea turtles is crucial to their long-term survival.