I arrived at the theater a little early. There were good seats left at the front, and the crowd – an older, calmer population than I am used to – was chatting and milling about contentedly. I expected this to be a routine assignment: show up, watch a movie, write a digestible review. What I didn’t know then, as I settled into my center-front seat at the Whitney Humanities Center, was that I would soon break all the rules of journalistic objectivity – I would come to care about my subject – and, in some small way, learn a little something new about myself and our world.
Ok, it didn’t go quite like that. But something close.
The last film in this year’s terrific EFFY lineup, The Whale, is about, well, a whale. More precisely it is about what happens to the human communities surrounding Nootka Sound off Vancouver Island when a whale shows up one day, and sticks around. The Whale starts with quick clips of a wild Pacific Northwest – eagle silhouettes, evergreens on jagged bays, white-top mountains, the works – that eventually settle onto a large pod of Orca whales frolicking in their incredible whaleness. As the pod disappears into a brilliant sunset, the movie’s narrator, Ryan Reynolds (who, we learn: a. Is from Canada, and b. Can contribute to a movie without taking his shirt off.) tells us that Luna, the whale in question, found himself in Nootka Sound after having lost his family “like a child wandering the aisles of a supermarket who turns around to discover its parents are gone.”
Alone and starved for social contact, Luna demands attention from every passing ship – and soon embeds himself in a complex community of terrestrial mammals. He meets a tugboat in the mornings and commutes cross-sound to work at a log boom operation on the Gold River (where the other loggers affectionately refer to him as “Bruno,” cause he’s a dude right?). He spends his evenings at a marina, staring down dogs yipping from the decks of schooners, and on weekends he entertains motorboaters by tossing logs and boat fenders like a pro. Cue adorable footage of Orca playing with: fishers, kayakers, sailors, tour boats. People love him. Perhaps more importantly, the local Mowachaht First Nation also view him as a sacred messenger from the natural world, with many members wondering if he is not the reincarnated form of a recently deceased elder chief.
Despite all the fun, the more Luna interacts with humans, the more the local Canadian government agency for marine mammal protection (referred to kafkaesquely in the film as the “Department”) fears for the safety of Luna and her new friends. Luna dangerously interferes with seaplane traffic, nuzzles kayakers desperate to avoid hyopthermic water, and approaches fast moving ships unaware of her predilections. The film is at its best when it follows the disastrous and controversial attempts by the Department to keep Luna safe, mostly through unsuccessful efforts to end his interactions with humans. They loudly warn a boat, which Luna is pushing in circles, that this “Is NOT a watchable whale,” and vainly give out citations to friendly boaters for “bothering a marine mammal.” The movie comes to a head when the local community arrives en masse to fight a Department effort to capture and remove Luna from the Sound (tireless members of the Mowachaht tribe become the film’s first heroes when they kayak Luna to safety, while chanting, across more than 50 nautical miles of ocean).
The story of Luna and the humans is surprisingly complex and not-so-surprisingly touching – I found myself wondering what I would have done when faced with similar management challenges and, yes, clapping along with the rest of the audience when Luna escapes from captivity.
I won’t ruin the film by telling you how it ends – go see it, it’s good. But at the risk of being uncharitable I would say that though this film is a good film, it is not a great film. Though it tries to connect the striking events in Nootka Bay to larger questions of humanity’s relationship to animals and nature, such moments feel half-hearted and, consequently, fall flat. For all the richness of the story, this movie is firmly rooted in Luna and her bay of humans and hardly ranges any farther afield. Though we learn that there are dozens of similar examples of lonely marine mammals befriending humans elsewhere around the world, there is no discussion of what possible larger truths we can (should?) take from this story. Though all the characters involved in the events loved Luna passionately (the movie is filled with touching declarations of true love) no one stops to say, well hey, maybe we should think harder about the way we treat other animals too. And that feels like a lost opportunity. If animals are more sentient than we used to believe, and are capable of communication, rich emotional attachments, and, dammit, love and longing, don’t we owe them a little more than CAFOs and medical experiments?
This notion isn’t a new one – Peter Singer has been writing about it for almost 40 years! – but it is one that a story like Luna’s is meant to illuminate. When we don’t connect disastrous storms to climate change we are loosing an opportunity to reorient dialogs and create space for change. When we don’t connect the plight of Luna to the plight of animals suffering worldwide, we are failing him and ourselves.
Now watch the trailer again and try not to feel a little something.
Aaron Reuben is Co-Editor-in-Chief of SAGE Magazine and a second-year Masters student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies