Journey to the South Pacific hits all the bases you expect from an Omnitheater film. There are the sweeping helicopter vistas, the underwater shots looking up at the shimmering sun through vast schools of fish, the laughing children glorying in the pure joy of nature, and even a wacky montage where fish seem to form a doo-wop chorus.
The difference is that Greg MacGillivray’s 2013 film — which opens today at the Science Museum of Minnesota — has a stronger undercurrent than a full-moon tide: a message about the urgent need for measures to combat the accelerating degradation of the fragile undersea ecosystems the movie celebrates.
The film centers on Jawi, a young West Papua boy who joins his uncle for a summer aboard the Kalabia — a reclaimed poaching boat that now serves as a mobile education lab for local youth. We get a glimpse of Jawi’s village, where traditional values are said to moderate the excesses of 21st century life.
Cate Blanchett’s narration doesn’t pull many punches, though: 90% of the larger fish in the area have disappeared, victims of overfishing and habitat loss. It will be up to Jawi and his peers, the film argues, to collaborate with scientists and with one another to stem the carnage.
In a gentle series of sequences, MacGillivray shows what the community, and the world, have to lose. An astonishingly diverse array of creatures from seahorses to turtles populate the coral reefs and deeper waters of the South Pacific, all in a delicate food chain stretching from tiny plankton to 60-foot whale sharks.
The film does its best to sound an optimistic note, emphasizing the progress being made to carve out preserves and fight the worst fishing practices — such as dropping dynamite directly into the water. Still, there’s an inescapable chord of desperation that keeps sounding throughout the film.
That chord will sound all the louder for adults and well-informed kids who know that a shipful of tourists — touted by Journey as the potential saviors of the ecosystem — just literally plowed into an Indonesian reef. Then there’s the threat of rising seas, which are far beyond the control of Jawi and his family. MacGillivray has acknowledged that some of the film’s settings could be submerged within a century, and that was before U.S. voters elected a president who thinks the West Papuans are frantically planting mangroves to fight a Chinese hoax.
Bleak, yes, but that makes films like Journey to the South Pacific all the more essential. At once nostalgic, hopeful, and tragic, the movie reminds us what’s at stake every time we start our car engine.
Photo: ©2013 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films