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Entries in Last Reef/The [2012] (1)

Monday
Sep122016

The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea (2012)

Coral History

If I sound like a broken record in my adulation of Shout! Factory's Ultra HD IMAX releases, well...get ready for more skipping. There's not a stinker in the bunch, and 2012's The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea (which makes its home video debut this week) continues an unbelievable streak of immersive and imaginative entertainment. If you're new to my newfound fandom, know that I don't recommend these titles lightly. As a relatively new physical-media format, UHD is pricey, and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest that casual movie viewers drop thirty to forty bucks on a forty-minute documentary--especially when, last I checked, IMAX @ Home isn't actually a thing.*

Luckily, films like The Last Reef don't just offer demo material for state-of-the-art AV setups (though they're good for that, too). They provide distinct narrative access points for a wide variety of subjects. Journey to Space took us on a tour of extra-planetary travel's past, present, and potential future; Flight of the Butterflies framed its history of Monarch tracking with bona fide personal drama; Rocky Mountain Express and now The Last Reef delve into straight-up philosophical territory, examining the effects of man's quest to dominate seemingly intractable natural forces via technology.

Co-writer/directors Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas kick off The Last Reef with a literal bang: chilling black-and-white footage of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, which began in 1946 and continued for more than a decade after, plays beneath Charles Trenet's dreamy rendition of "La Mer". That same year, the world was introduced to a new kind of swimwear. In what might best be described as a master stroke of cosmic irony, the bikini became a symbol of leisurely exhibitionism, even as its namesake was being bombed into aquatic oblivion. 1946 also gave us the Aqua-Lung, which made SCUBA diving commercially viable and would eventually allow filmmakers like Cresswell and McNicholas to chronicle the literal depths of industrialization's far-reaching but little-seen after effects.

Unlike Humpback Whales, which overplayed its conservational hand, The Last Reef mostly tells by showing. In a brilliantly executed early montage, Cresswell and McNicholas juxtapose sped-up footage of Manhattan's daily hustle-and-bustle with various types of sea creatures going about their routines: people head to work in massive, synchronised traffic patterns the same way schools of fish move from place to place; a giant manta ray collects and drops off smaller fish who clean the parasites off its body in a fashion not dissimilar to the symbiosis between commuters and modes of public transport.

The filmmakers devote a fair amount of time to showcasing some genuinely alien underwater life,* and narrator Jamie Lee shares tidbits aplenty about the myriad organisms that comprise the global reef ecosystem. Halfway into The Last Reef, we're introduced to the sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor.

We never meet Taylor himself, only his work--massive artificial coral reefs depicting people as despairing, regret-filled relics. First, we see an obese man filling up a couch, entranced by the giant television sitting across from him. Later, a collection of onlookers gaze skyward from the bottom of the ocean; their blue stone faces are horrified and surprised, as if they'd all been sent to a watery grave by Medusa. As Taylor had intended, nature has already begun reclaiming his work; new life forms set up shop and add rust-colored splashes to their dead-eyed foundations. Elsewhere, sunken warships from forgotten conflicts past integrate with the ocean floor, becoming unseen symbols of progress and prosperity.

Taylor's message (and, by extension, Cresswell and McNicholas') ain't subtle, but neither is the threat faced by reefs worldwide. Pollution fed by consumption fed by a belief that energy just comes from desire or the sun or someplace is demolishing underwater habitats at an alarming rate. Full disclosure: the movie makes this case; in my capacity as a film critic, I have not independently verified any of the filmmakers' claims. But it's hard to un-see Bikini Atoll's ashen coral graveyards, or to not worry that we're losing the ability to observe creatures whose weird and wondrous abilities might hold the keys to doors we never even knew were locked. The Last Reef triumphs by slyly indulging us in impossibly pretty pictures while painting an altogether ugly one.

*Now that I've named the technology, though, I expect a three percent cut whenever Man Caves become Man Caverns.

**There is no greater evidence of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy than The Last Reef's brief but oh-so-memorable flat-worm footage. Watching what appears to be a paper-thin hybrid of a mushroom and a butterfly as it billows and glides through the water, I wondered why all the horror- and sci-fi-movie monsters of these last however-many years all look the same. You have to go all the way back to The Mist to find extra-dimensional creatures who don't just look like Deviant Art Geiger rip-offs--which is a goddamned crime, since we have, at this very moment, countless examples of real-world-unsettling monsters within a diving team's reach.