Tuesday, 7 June 2011

World Without Sun (Jacques Cousteau, 1964) Blu-Ray Review

The undersea adventure continues for Jacques Cousteau in World Without Sun (1964)

920ft under the rippling waves of the ocean surface, ecologist and explorer Jacques Cousteau finds a "new zone of life." In my review of The Silent World (Cousteau, Malle, 1956) I described the film as "an alien voyage, recalling classic science-fiction" and certainly its adventurous spirit conjured to mind the works of Jules Verne; like 20,000 Leagues come to life. World Without Sun is an undistorted fusion of documentary and sci-fi; the depths are like an alien planet, yet Cousteau frequently makes comparison with the world we know, describing the descent through caverns and seabeds as a "vertical desert." But his diving vessel looks like an early prototype for the Millennium Falcon, and some of the invertebrate creatures found in the recesses of submerged grottos would feel equally at home in Jabba's palace of excess - like a dancing bush, for example, with no heart or brain, but which moves in a disconcerting creep across jagged rocks. I'd be fascinated to know the conditions of this life form; how it sources energy and survives in the harsh environment. But as in Cousteau's first Palme d'Or winning feature, World Without Sun is as much a portrait of the ecologist as the ocean, and sometimes facts can get lost at the expense of narrative and 'character'.

The Conshelf Two (a man-made undersea HQ; like the lair for a Bond villain) is incredible to behold, again recalling the design of a space station, and for a while it holds our attention. It's important to know how Cousteau's crew maintain a lifestyle under the ocean for weeks on end - seeing the quality and innovation of their living conditions is vital in providing a rounded picture of their marine exploration unit. It's also interesting to see their mini one-man structures positioned further down the seabed, where volunteers live for a week to test if that depth would be sustainable for an entire crew; they wish to go deeper, and explore the strangest regions of our unimaginably vast oceans. But soon I became weary of this routine, where we were allowed to 'observe' the crew in their daily lives. I had the same problem as in The Silent World, where some of it felt set-up, and I think that Cousteau's films would be better served with him as subject rather than director. But soon we are allowed to dive into the alien land and descend ever-deeper into the dark waters, and the last twenty minutes of the film hold some breathtaking sights...

This final third was exactly what I'd been waiting for from Cousteau, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable ride. I won't explain too much, because some of the sights captured (beautifully lensed by DP Pierre Goupil) defy words. I was struck by a scene involving a shark monster, at least 20ft in length, as it ducks and weaves in front of the camera, hunting for easy prey. As we go deeper and deeper the sights get stranger and stranger, but also more nightmarish. For these scenes alone I would recommend the film; it's a true adventure, and as thrilling as any Jules Verne...

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