[AFI Docs 2021 Review] ‘FATHOM’ decodes whale calls, but doesn’t communicate visually


Travis Leamons // Film Critic


TV-PG, 86 minutes.
Director: Drew Xanthopoulos
Cast: Dr. Michelle Fournet and Dr. Ellen Garland

When I read the premise to FATHOM, I was intrigued. It’s a documentary about a pair of marine biologists in separate parts of the world working to decipher the communication patterns of whales.

Dr. Michelle Fournet at Cornell University and Dr. Ellen Garland at the University of St. Andrews are staring into the aquatic abyss in an attempt to get a response while also determining how far-reaching the sounds of humpback whales travel. Trying to communicate with mammals more than 30 million years old is as colossal an undertaking as the creatures themselves.

As Fournet and Garland journey to Frederick Sound, Alaska, and French Polynesia, respectively, and continue their research, we track both working on starting a conversation. That’s the Xanthopoulous approach. The problem is he cannot effectively communicate this idea on a visual level.

Make no mistake, FATHOM has a nice selection of Alaskan beauty shots with the intrepid Dr. Fournet and her research assistants heading out from shore and tracking the humpback whales from afar. French Polynesia is nowhere as captivating on account of sunny skies blanching the boat deck and open water visible in all directions.

The first third of the documentary gets us into the science of the types of whale calls and in deciphering the syntax of the patterns. There are four different call classifications, including the droplet, swop, and growl. The call of all calls, though, is the whupping sound they make. Both Fournet and Garland concentrate their efforts on this one specifically, believing it to be key in breaking through the babble.

With the specific calls and trying to understand each symphonic undulation, it was hard for me not to think of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL. Same idea, although the sci-fi film’s concept was more in line with inkblot tests. (What are whales but aquatic aliens, right?) But because their research is specific to sounds, Xanthopoulos conveying the doctors’ findings and breakthroughs are problematic. It is difficult for the researchers who encounter their own setbacks as the days and weeks progress and difficult for us to engage. Routine actions involving dropping waterproof sound devices connected to a rope overboard, estimating distance ranges of the humpback whales as part of the study, and diagraming and working out problems in spiral notebooks, as necessary as they are, fail to excite.

For a film about marine biologists studying the sounds of the loudest creatures on Earth, it is odd that the subjects are only seen from a distance. Xanthopoulos places us on a boat with a pair of binoculars to help us see the majestic creatures. The sounds they communicate are captivating; I just wish we could see them up close.

Perhaps, FATHOM was not made for those who watch the occasional wildlife documentary. The film is too narrow in its scope, feeling geared to marine biologists or those who really want to know the process in unscrambling the code and making an aquatic connection. 

For the rest of us, without proper guidance (read: a voiceover – at the very least) to help steer us through the science minutiae, we might as well be walking into class in the middle of a lecture.

Grade: C

Our interview with director Drew Xanthopoulos:

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