The Human Response
Published on September 22nd, 2011 | by Daniel J. Scott0
“The Whale” opens on Sept 23 at Cinema Village
Running time: 85 minutes
“The Whale” comes to us after a slew of recent documentaries about the complex relationship between humans and animals. “Project Nim,” “Buck” and “One Lucky Elephant” are some examples. The glaring distinction is that in “The Whale,” it is the animal who insists on the relationship—which makes the dynamic no less fraught with ethical, political and philosophical questions.
The film’s eponymous character is “Luna,” a two-year-old orca separated from his family at an early age, and apparently without the desire to befriend other whales. Instead, he prefers to direct his attention to the terrestrial inhabitants of Vancouver Island. He approaches people at every opportunity. Whether they’re passing by on kayaks or fishing boats, or posting up on their docks, the whale comes within distances that would be frightening if he were in any way aggressive. But Luna’s conduct is more akin to that of an amusement park dolphin or a marine puppy, if there was one. He surfaces out of nowhere with his mouth agape, and actually lets people pet its tongue—or begs them to, if you care to anthropomorphize him.
Such temptation abounds in “The Whale.” From it’s opening moments, Luna’s abandonment is analogized to a “child lost in the supermarket.” Community members describe him as “spunky” and “pushy.” Wall-to-wall narration by Ryan Reynolds (also co-executive producer and former Vancouver Islander) walks the tightrope between speaking about Luna rather than for him. Under the helm of husband-and-wife director team, Suzanne Chrisholm and Michael Parfit, however, “The Whale” never deprives Luna of his mystique.
Quite the opposite. The filmmakers compare Luna’s unknowability to that of an extra-terrestrial: “One day we humans may meet an intelligent being from another world,” Reynolds intones. “Hollywood tells us this stranger will come flying down in a spaceship, and will look a bit like us. But maybe it won’t be like that. Maybe it will be like this.” These words are at first profound, but lose their heft upon becoming a motif used—to exhaustive effect—throughout the film’s entirety, giving way to passages that remind us of (lest we forget) our own status as…humans. While the resistance to anthropomorphism is appreciated, “The Whale” goes so far in the other direction as to constitute a kind of over-compensation. Whatever ambiguity there may have been between us and the wild is undermined by the film’s endless editorializing.
It’s strange, because the film’s intention is to explore precisely how murky that boundary can be. Perhaps a different film existed in the form of the lesser-known documentary “Saving Luna” (2007), which won the Audience Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2008. Helmed by the same husband-and-wife directing team, “Saving Luna” was the inspiration for expanded, re-written, Ryan Reynolds version of “The Whale.” “Saving Luna” ostensibly covered the same human conflict over how to treat a whale forgetful of its place in nature. Conservationists, scientists and the law stepped in not only for Luna’s sake (Luna is of a family of orcas fewer in number than 90), but for the sake of the Vancouver Island community whose safety is also of concern.
Was “Saving Luna” a more observational film? Or was it more of an advocacy film? Unfortunately, I can’t say so myself. Judging by the reviews that surfaced around the time, however, the film was just as much an emotional journal through the moral haze of interspecies friendship—but without the budget for expensive aerial shots and sweeping time lapse footage (which, to “The Whale’”s credit, make it a visual delight). So what is it about “The Whale” that doesn’t click?
Returning to the aforementioned documentaries that have seen some popular success, one finds that each of them possesses strong human characters. “Project Nim” boasts an ensemble cast that displays the full range of human emotions. “Buck” struck a goldmine of a protagonist with Buck Brannaman. And “One Lucky Elephant” found an all-too human subject in a circus producer conflicted over how to let go of his star act. It goes without saying that the stated focus of these documentaries is the human-animal relationship. Yet they all demonstrate that it is only upon discovering our opposite that we can come to a clearer definition of ourselves.
Jacques Derrida said as much in a lecture he gave in 1997: “The gaze called ‘animal’ offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human […] the border-crossing from which vantage man dares to announce himself to himself.”
“The Whale” offers a cast much larger than that of any of the aforementioned films. Among those to choose from are a fisheries officer, a cook on an old freighter, the directors themselves, and an indigenous community convinced that Luna is the spirit of a dead chief. These people, however, never escape their designations as stand-ins for humanity. They come to us as talking heads superimposed over observational footage, their place in reality literally cut off by garish cropping and feathering effects. As the movie unfolds, Ryan Reynolds forgoes whatever personal connection he had to the material to instead become a snarky narrator not too dissimilar in tone from Ira Glass.
It’s a shame, because the real star of “The Whale” is Luna, whose mystery is vast enough to contain our curiosity for hours. There is no shortage of footage of him interacting with people, engaging in hilarious antics, and traveling gracefully underwater. Luna comes within inches of the lens, looking at us with that questioning gaze of which only animals are capable. Unfortunately, that gaze is met with a human response.