“Fathom” had its World Premiere in the Documentary Competition section at Tribeca Film Festival, before streaming on Apple TV+ in the US starting June 25th.
The second feature from documentary filmmaker Drew Xanthopoulos, Fathom offers a sensorial immersion into scientific studies surrounding one of the earliest cultures of communication – that of humpback whales. Xanthopoulos follows two separate research expeditions. In Alaska, Dr. Michelle Fournet aims to actively engage humpback whales in dialogue by broadcasting a simulated “whup” call the whales use to greet each other. Southward in French Polynesia, Dr. Ellen Garland is tracking the spread of a humpback whale song in an effort to understand its evolving patterns, and whether these complex sequences could reveal a vast global network.
Much of the film is focused on the researchers in their respective fields, tracking whales from motorboats out in the deep blue. This limited environment necessitates a variety of intimate close-up shots, which Xanthopoulos deftly balances with wide framings of the expansive ocean horizon that surrounds his subjects. In opting for voiceover narration – from the two researchers themselves – rather than interviews, Xanthopoulos invites a more personal viewing experience; it feels as though we’re given special access to the subjects’ log notes, hearing their thoughts as they hit pen to paper in real time, rather than as mere retellings of their observations. There’s a poetic quality in these reports that, paired with the camera’s long scanning shots of the ocean, bring a sort of spiritual, calming essence to the film. In one such sequence, as Garland struggles to decipher a whale’s exact geographical position, she makes a simple observation: “Water is a window, but it’s also a wall.”
While I admire Xanthopoulos for pushing the limits of his cinematic skills, namely in his lean one-man crew approach to filming in isolated environments, his final product falls short of providing any sort of comprehensive story arc. The film’s narrative focal point is as elusive as the creatures its subjects study. Xanthopoulos presents too many scenes of the researchers preparing technical equipment, as well as shots of the slow moving logistical reconnaissance each must complete after their field surveys. While I concede a reality of scientific experiment involves the tedious tasks of record keeping and instrument assembly and dismantling – equipping their teams for, as Garland puts it, a lengthy game of “acoustic hide and seek” – Xanthopoulos fixes our attention to these moments for far too long. In focusing more on the processes necessary to capture data, and less on explaining how this data is being used and what its compilation seeks to achieve, it’s unclear what the true purpose and interest in these research expeditions are.
Furthermore, Xanthopoulos struggles to maintain narrative balance, attempting to soften the logistics-heavy sequences with brief examinations into the researcher’s personal lives. Garland’s reflections on the struggle of balancing field work with family, and on her experience of being a woman in a male dominated field, served more as forced, tangential observations and less as connective fibers to the overarching story. There’s a certain predictive model to how Xanthopoulos shifts between the two researcher’s stories, which had an unfortunate anesthetizing effect on the viewing experience of a film that had a runtime just shy of ninety minutes. I found the film’s marketing motto – Garland asserting: “Studying whale culture might be more about glimpsing something in ourselves” – a stretch, as Xanthopoulos fails to shed light on the enlightening perspective these studies condition.
What the film lacks in contextual content on the history of humpback whales and how their communication evolved in the dark, it makes up for in its stunning shots of the mystical creatures themselves – across landscapes unseen by most humans. The film’s sound design also shines, especially in the animated portrayals of whale song in which Xanthopoulos inventively brings texture to sound.
One thing is certain: this movie was made for the big screen. So while the film’s distribution deal with Apple TV+ is an applaudable feat, its presentation on a streaming service rather than a theatrical release could dampen its impact.