Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"If you're cynical about non-human intelligence and inclined to associate an interest in whale song with sentimental hippies, Fathom will waste no time in setting you right." | Photo: Apple TV+

Every now and again a documentary comes along that will change the way you look at the world. Fathom is, ostensibly, just the story of two scientists doing their jobs. Ellen Garland tracks humpback whale songs as they travel around the world. Michelle Fournet records non-song humpback whale calls and aims to decipher their meaning. Nestled within this, however, is an opportunity for viewers to make contact with a culture that existed for hundreds of thousands of years before our ancestors came down from the trees, and to recognise a level of sophistication which far exceeds our own.

The film hinges on Fournet's endeavours to start a conversation with whales, having isolated a sound which she believes to be a greeting and personal identifier. We begin in the lab, observing conversations as her electronic imitation of the call is fine tuned, gaining some appreciation of the degree of effort that has been involved in getting to this stage. This is about first contact. If her engagement is successful, she does not expect to understand what she might hear in response. That will require further study. She is acutely aware of her limitations, yet driven by a further concern - if we cannot learn to communicate with the whales soon, they may go extinct, taking all heir wisdom and millenniums worth of knowledge with them.

If you're cynical about non-human intelligence and inclined to associate an interest in whale song with sentimental hippies, Fathom will waste no time in setting you right. Sonographs of whale brains highlight not just their impressive size but the comparative size of areas engaged in communication and social activity, as well as highlighting the fusion of their auditory and visual processing centres. It's at this point that you will realise, if you didn't before, that this isn't like translation between human languages which have roughly equivalent words for most common items. The whale language is something beyond words - more like the exchange of binary images, or even of film. It's also encoded in a way that enables it to make sense when signals are received out of order, with some individual vocal expressions travelling for thousands of miles. This is like tapping into an alien internet. It's impossible to consider it in any depth without also appreciating the vast intelligence needed to interpret it.

Director Drew Xanthopoulos lets viewers absorb all this slowly whilst immersing us in a story full of small but important reflections on what it means to be human. We see what the women have to give up to do their work, the loss of relationships and the challenges that would be involved if they wanted to have children, plus the challenges of adjusting to and from life in the field. We see the effort that goes into their work and the very real dangers they face out on Arctic waters with creatures easily capable of capsizing them by accident (humpbacks, like some other whale species, recognise that humans need to be on the surface and sometimes help them to get there, but could have no means of understanding the potentially deadly effects of hypothermia). We also see them accidentally burning dinner, messing about on a swing and just hanging out and talking. This not only endears them to the viewer, defying stereotypes of scientists as personally cold and remote, but reminds us that we too are a social species. Perhaps, it is suggested, we too could one day connect with each other as the whales do.

Given the isolation that many viewers will recently have experienced in lockdown, Fathom is opening to an audience more likely to be open to thinking about different kinds of communication, and more appreciative of long distance engagement. The wide, airy vistas of the Arctic, beautifully shot by Xanthopoulos, are also likely to appeal. This is a film that packs in a lot of information yet unfolds so gently that, at first, you may not realise it. When you grasp the enormity of what it's addressing, it will hit you like a sonar pulse and leave you stunned.

Reviewed on: 29 Jun 2021
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Fathom packshot
Documentary follows researchers working to finally decode the communication of humpback whales.
Amazon link

Director: Drew Xanthopoulos

Year: 2021

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2021
EIFF 2021

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