Fathom goes in search of whale song and finds a little more [Apple TV+ review]

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Dr. Michelle Fournet stars in the Whaling documentary Fathom
Michelle Fournet wants to understand the humpback whale's song.
Photo: Apple TV+

Fathom, the new Apple TV+ documentary about whales, tells the story of a couple of women who made it their life’s work to figure out why the humpback sings — and what that song means. Though there’s a lot to like here, and the vibes are admirable, the whole effort could have used more … (30-minute pause) depth.

Fathom, which premieres today, keeps the network’s focus on mass-market biological documentary alive. It joins such outstanding efforts as Tiny World and Earth at Night in Color.

Fathom review

The new nature doc focuses on scientists Ellen Garland and Michelle Fournet, who have been on a quest for many years: to talk to humpback whales. The songs that these whales produce are some of the more intriguing in the animal kingdom because they’re among the most elaborate. And up until this point, no one has ever been able to divine their purpose.

For a few weeks, marine acoustician Fournet and research assistants Maggie Knight and Leanna Matthews head to a remote outpost to play the sound of whale calls and see if they can produce a response from the local humpback population. Their findings could change everything we understand about whales.

Garland, a biologist, sets the stage beautifully by announcing that she believes that not only is humpback song infinitely complex, it may indeed rival human speech in its dynamics and tones. She thinks they’re having full conversations the way people do.

Understand the sound

Fathom review: The documentary about humpback whale songs takes Apple TV+ to new depths ... in a good way.
Fathom takes Apple TV+ to new depths … sometimes in a good way.
Photo: Apple TV+

Fournet and Garland’s personalities are foregrounded well enough that you get a very good sense of who they are and what drives them. Both had parents who inadvertently set them up to turn away from human communication in favor of a lifelong conversation with animals who will never know them as anything but small, alien shapes.

There’s a sense in watching them try to replicate whale calls that they want to be on more equal footing with their cetacean crushes, that they want to share a bond completely uncommon in the animal kingdom.

It’s a bewitching idea. Director/cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos, editor Robin Schwartz and composer Hanan Townsend nearly achieve Close Encounters of the Third Kind-level momentum in shaping these moments of closeness and the excitement of bordering on new kinds of relationships with other species.

… but prep for the downtime

What lets the film down is … well, everything else. This is not a 24-hour-a-day kind of project. Or rather, the progress is slow and the revelations far from frequent. So there’s a lot of downtime.

Xanthopoulos filmed a lot of talk among the female whaling crew about their hopes and dreams, and they don’t have nearly enough to do with the main thrust of the doc to warrant inclusion.

There is, for instance, an awful lot of talk about sexism and not having female models for success in their field. I have no doubt that’s true, because it’s true of every single field on Earth. However, some tangible sense of it would have gone a long way toward explaining why it belongs in this 86-minute documentary.

A whale of a tale

Fathom review: Biologist Ellen Garland compares humpback whales' song to human speech.
Biologist Ellen Garland compares humpback whales’ song to human speech.
Photo: Apple TV+

The interpersonal stuff gets conspicuously in the way because this is a film focused on enormity. Fathom revels in vast skies blanketing infinite seas. It shows us animals so massive that a single shrug from their gargantuan form could kill the researchers.

These creatures are godlike in their indifference to the women above them. And we get a genuine sense of the absurd depth of the seas that contain the gentle mammoths, and the beautiful swells of water that betray their presence.

It’s a film, in other words, of pure, beautiful texture.

Townsend’s music, taking its shape from Bedřich Smetana’s “Má vlast,” specifically the movement entitled “The Moldau,” mimics the feeling and intensity of rushing water. It helps create a tapestry for these beautiful impressions of water and amphibious life and zealous scientists meeting at an impassible barrier.

Documentary or something more impressionistic?

I understand that there’s very little chance that Xanthopoulos would have sold this film to Apple TV+ if he erased most of the human element in favor of a more purely sensory experience, but that’s what this movie wants to be.

I watched Fathom three times because I kept getting lost in the images of water and forgetting there was supposed to be a plot. It’s not that I don’t care about the subject matter. Indeed, it’s fascinating stuff from a theoretical standpoint. But there are two ways to tell this story, and weaving between them does no one any favors.

If this is a documentary about the dogged women dedicated to communing with the humpback whale because it’s the only time they truly feel alive, it needs to be less ambient and more rigorous. If this is a vibes movie about the meeting place between human and whale, it needs to cut out every extraneous scene of people talking.

I liked Fathom a good deal but it’s a qualified success on every count.

Fathom on Apple TV+

Humpback whale documentary Fathom premieres on Apple TV+ on June 25.

Rated: TV-PG

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.