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IMAX Wild Ocean 3D Blu-ray Review

Image Entertainment came out of the 3D TV gates with not one, not two but three 3D IMAX movies on Blu-ray. Their first 3D Blu-ray outing, Grand Canyon Adventures, absolutely wowed me with its 3D effects and subtle yet meaningful pro-environment messaging. I’ve always been a fan of briny wildlife, and Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is an annual staple in my house, so I was eager to see what Image would deliver with Wild Ocean 3D. Maybe I hyped it too much. Maybe Grand Canyon Adventures was so good that everything else would be downhill from there. Maybe, just maybe, I expected to see more of the actual ocean in a film called Wild Ocean. Regardless, Wild Ocean 3D was a disappointment all around.

The 42-minute feature discusses through an environmental lens how the relationship between humans and the sea has changed over the decades in South Africa. Fish populations are dwindling, generations-old traditions have become occasional activities, and overfishing and global warming have pushed the fish out to see and indigenous cultures to the brink. Think that’s heavy-handed? Then consider that before the film gets to that message — which occurs during just the first five minutes — the movie opens with a two-minute Nokia spiel about how “we” can recycle, “we” can create innovative green ideas, and how “we” should be good global citizens. While I don’t disagree with the message, it’s incredibly forced and jarring. This would have been much better as a bonus feature a la the sponsor messages in the Grand Canyon Adventure 3D Blu-ray. Instead, its tone taints the rest of the film’s already-preachy vibe before it even unfolds.

The opening scene tries to make viewers forget all about the preaching, as it shows a school of swirling sardines that looks so close you could touch them. In fact, I could watch these 3D swirling sardines for hours. Yet we don’t have hours with them; the scene quickly changes to one of sandcastles with such depth and relief that the 3D opportunities they present are not gone wasted by the filmmakers.

Unfortunately, moving from below- to above-water scenes is par for the course with Wild Ocean 3D, as the film spends more time out of the briny depths than it spends beneath them. The South African coast provides the setting for the film, because its warm and cold currents collide during the winter to bring together a mix of predators and prey that puts on a show. At least, that’s what the narrator says. One-fourth of the way through the film, viewers will have seen only about 60 seconds of underwater footage. There are lots of shots of the coastline and the people who live near it as the narrator discusses the people’s reliance upon the sea as a source of life. The narrator even goes so far as to say “circle of life.”


The one bright spot of a 3D Blu-ray called Wild Ocean that spends so much time above water is that the terrestrial scenes do provide some good 3D effects. One in particular, in fact, provides one of the best 3D sequences I’ve seen yet: a brief snippet of women carrying branches on their heads toward the camera. The 3D effect is pulled-off so well that I actually was waiting for the branches to come out of the left-hand side of the TV screen rather than just move off camera. I’m in my 30s with two kids; I know better than to fall for that trick. Apparently my 3D-newbie brain does not.

When the film does finally transition to a bit more underwater scenery, it’s a mix of good, bad and tired. On the bad side, when we see and follow a pod of bottlenose dolphins, there’s some serious crosstalk between the left and right signals that gives some of the dolphins an “aura.” It’s actually to the point of distraction, a la an old rabbit-ear TV being out of tune and the ghost-like outline of a person’s face appearing to the right or left of the main picture.

On the tired front, a scene with penguins and seals going after a swirling “bait ball” of smaller fish makes you realize that even though it’s cool to see these images in 3D, we’ve seen most of these videos in one form or another already, and the 3D effects aren’t really sufficient to counteract the low-contrast images. Now, this isn’t an issue of bad filming, but where the directors chose to film. Sharks, dolphins and other large predators are displayed against the dark blue backdrop of the deep sea, which doesn’t provide much contrast. It also doesn’t really provide mush depth, since it’s just a field of color. When the scenes show multiple fish in the same frame the 3D is OK, but that’s only about half of the fishes’ total screen time. I will say that the first time you see a shark swim toward the camera with its mouth open, you are in for a little jump. It’s just not something you normally see in 3D, and it’s a bit surprising.

On the good side of the spectrum, the bubbles and occasional debris that floats in front of the camera are among the best effects in the film, better than the animals themselves in many cases. And when the sardines first make their appearance near land at the 30-minute mark, dolphins dart aggressively through swirling schools of fish while seals bully their way through the teeming sea and birds dive bomb from the air. All these predators mingled with their prey makes for an incredible 3D experience. It’s a true shame that it takes so long to really get that sort of feeling in an underwater scene.

The good vibes don’t last, though, as there’s some really bad crosstalk during the last four minutes of the film when we see locals working and fishing off the coast. This bad 3D experience is timed horribly, too, because it takes place during an overly melodramatic monologue about predators at the top of the food chain (ahem, humans) needing to exercise restraint to save our oceans, to save the circle of life (yes, he uses the term a second time) and to elicit “a sea of change” (his words, not mine) in our relationship with the ocean. Coupled with some overt visual metaphors, the narrative conclusion is quite heavy handed, and this time a good 3D effect doesn’t succeed in saving the day. In fact, the bad 3D effects make the tone/attitude seem even worse.

The bonus features, all of which are presented in traditional 2D but high definition, start off with an Interview with the Directors (15:56) in which the directors outline on a very high level what intrigued them about 3D IMAX and some of the challenges that format presented. The discussion makes an interesting counterbalance to Shooting Wild Ocean (7:13), which is a photographic HD slideshow of production stills and images shot by the divers while “on the set.” After watching the film in 3D, these still images pose an odd anticlimax, but the inspirational soundtrack to which they’re set saves the feature from being boring. In fact, it manages to turn often-bland photos into stories about communal triumph and survival.

Kwazulu Natal During the Run (6:31) continues this communal vibe, as it documents the music, dance, races and all-out festival atmosphere associated with the Sardine Run. Basically, if this festival amounts to the tailgater for sardine catching and canning, then this feature is its documentary. Recording Wild Ocean (2:23), as the name suggests, is a feature focused on the movie’s soundtrack and score, while the final feature, Behind the Scenes (8:38) expands on the issues that the directors spoke about in their segment and illustrates some of the challenges via behind-the-scenes videos.

In summary, Wild Ocean (technically, “Wild Coast”) is the name of an area in South Africa where the sardines migrate each year and, accordingly, so do predators. As such, the movie talks extensively about humans. It talks a lot about birds. And although it also covers seals, penguins, sharks, dolphins and whales, it really focuses more on a region and humans than it does the ocean. Couple that with a heavy-handed environmental message, and Wild Ocean 3D is surprisingly disappointing. It certainly has its outstanding 3D moments, but those fleeting instances just can’t make up for the rest of the film’s shortcomings and tonal extremes.

If you’re curious about the film, you can order it from here: IMAX: Wild Ocean 3D Blu-ray.

Score: 7

— Jonas Allen

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