With its spooky, otherworldly rock formations, its unimaginably bizarre creatures, and its mysterious remoteness from ordinary life, the deep ocean holds all the makings of a genuinely magical science film. "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea" throws some spectacular and previously unseen images onto the giant Imax screen, but it stitches them together with a sometimes confusing narrative that only distracts from the fascinating undersea world.
We begin on an unnamed coastline, with an unnamed man. Only much later do we learn that the coast is Spain's and that the man is a paleontologist named Dolf Seilacher. For the moment, he's some guy chipping at some rocks and talking about the "mistress" he acquired here on his honeymoon.
That mistress would be a small, elusive creature called Paleodictyon nodosum, whose fossilized tunnels Seilacher discovered half a century ago. Remarkably, he believes that the prehistoric creature, which he thinks is a kind of worm, still exists; geologist Peter Rona has found similar hexagonal patterns of tunnels on the deep ocean floor. But neither these two nor anyone else has ever seen the creature.
So off we go into the deep, in search of Paleodictyon. But first we get some back story: about Alvin, the famous submersible the scientists will use; about the mid-ocean vents that an Alvin team discovered in the Pacific three decades ago; about volcanic eruptions underwater and how and why they occur; about the many weird creatures that live near these "volcanoes," properly known as hydrothermal vents; about the connections between this deep-sea life and deep space. It's all nicely narrated by Ed Harris, but it derails the narrative about the elusive living fossil.
Perhaps, though, director Stephen Low would have been wiser to go even further off the rails. For when we do finally get back to Seilacher, as he and Rona eagerly slice open cores of sediment to look for Paleodictyon, disappointment awaits. They find the tunnels, but not the creatures.
Science is like that sometimes. But the failure to find a living creature makes the decision to focus the film on the search for it an odd one. Perhaps this emphasis was influenced by Rona's association with Rutgers University, which coproduced "Volcanoes" and would naturally want to see its professor's discovery highlighted. Still, the university as well as the viewer might have been better served by a more broadly framed narrative -- something that you'd think the executive producer, James Cameron, would know.
By taking a more general look at deep-sea life, for example, the filmmakers could have made better use of their often remarkable images. We see weird shrimp that nibble just inches away from boiling water, strange spaghetti worms draped across the rocks, and 6-foot-tall tubeworms that survive in a toxic environment by playing host to microbes that can convert poisonous hydrogen sulfide into food. All these creatures are interesting enough on their own, without the tenuous narrative thread of "searching for a mistress" knotting them together.
It would also have been useful to see the frequent computer simulations more clearly labeled. Some are obvious, as when we see Earth's crust developing from space or, at the other end of the scale, watch microscopic creatures called hyperthermophiles. But I wouldn't know without reading the press materials closely that the shots of Alvin exploring underwater were created by filming the submersible in shallow waters off San Diego, then dropping its image into a computer-generated image of the deep-sea environment.
Maybe they thought it would diminish the magic if they told us such things. But the magic of science, as this film's best moments remind us, lies precisely in knowing what's real.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.