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A Marine Biologist Talks About What Hollywood Gets Wrong About the Ocean

An expert chats ‘Finding Nemo’ and the movies about the deep that are somehow less realistic than the Pixar film about talking fish

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2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

When Hollywood goes out to sea, it’s usually to accomplish one of two things: evoke fear or create a feeling of adventure. There are so many movies about the unknowns that lurk in the ocean—something that can be played up through emphasizing terrors of the deep (Underwater, Leviathan, etc.), carnivorous predators terrorizing our shores (Jaws, although Amity Island’s mayor is the real villain of that movie), or a sense of genuine wonder (The Abyss, but not so much the infamously hellish production on James Cameron’s film). Other times, Ocean Moviesfocus on the elements that bring someone to their absolute limit (All Is Lost) or on somebody who is stranded in the open ocean (Open Water) to create more of a philosophical, existential thrill. And, uh, sometimes movies are about scientists experimenting on sharks to cure Alzheimer’s and accidentally making them super smart (Deep Blue Sea forever).

The catalog of great Ocean Cinema is as engrossing as it is varied, and if half of this stuff actually happened, most people wouldn’t dare step foot in the water again. Thankfully (presumably?) what we see on the big screen doesn’t always get the ocean right, even though that doesn’t make these films any less entertaining. But to separate fact from fiction, and know what the experts think about Hollywood’s interpretation of the ocean, I called up Dr. Stephen Kajiura—a professor at Florida Atlantic University’s department of biological sciences—for a wide-ranging chat about ocean movies to celebrate Finding Nemo’s 17th anniversary. (Yes, I will take any reason to phone a marine biologist and run with it.)

In the past, Dr. Kajiura has graciously answered all my pressing (read: silly) questions about Aquaman and 47 Meters Down: Uncaged—two films that, shockingly, aren’t all that scientifically accurate. By the time we finished talking for the third time, I began to sense a trend in the larger ocean movie canon.

Like many industries during the pandemic, the theatrical experience has been put on hold, but we did get a new ocean movie in January called Underwater. It follows the workers at a deep-sea drilling operation in the Marianas Trench that is struck by an earthquake. Naturally, as they try to get back to the surface they’re also being attacked by these creatures hungry for human flesh. What’s your takeaway from that?

You know, I am completely unaware of this movie. I didn’t even know this one existed. Maybe they’re not expecting much from it, it’s easier to let it go at that time of the year.

That’s what January movies are for, unfortunately. But one of the things I did appreciate about Underwater was that a lot of attention was paid to the dangers when you’re that far down—one character’s helmet is defective and he implodes from the pressure. It’s really gnarly stuff. I assume that’s a more realistic danger than flesh-eating monsters? What else should someone worry about being at those depths?

That’s one of the interesting things that I always see with these movies, where people are in these deep-sea submersibles or whatever, is [the rescue team will] bring them up to the surface right away to save them. But in reality, you would kill them by doing that. You’ve been under pressure for so long, and if you were to decompress rapidly like that you would basically, well, you’d get an extreme case of the bends and die. So I’m glad that they were at least cognizant of that.

… Actually, at the end of the movie a couple characters do shoot up to the surface, and they definitely don’t adhere to the slow decompression. It’s more like a jet pack going off.

[Laughs] They take their helmets off, breathe the fresh air, and all is great. Yeah, well, not really.

So the flesh-eating monsters in question are around the same size as humans, but at the end of Underwater you find out they’re all the offspring of a huge, Cthulhu-like monster. As was the case with The Meg, I’m guessing there’s no chance of discovering some giant monstrosity in the Marianas Trench?

There’s just not enough energy down there for them. The bigger you are, you need a lot of calories. And there’s just not that much productivity in a deep-sea environment to be able to support big organisms. Also the bigger you are, you feed farther down on the food chain. Think of whales. Whales are the biggest thing in the ocean but they feed on little tiny plankton, krill, things like that. And they need to be feeding on these little tiny things because you need a lot of it to support their massive size.

As you get bigger and bigger and bigger—the whale sharks, the basking sharks, they’re all filter feeders. When they show these giant, enormous things that are out for human blood, it’s not going to work. Energetically, you can’t make that sustainable. You can’t be that big and still need to eat near the top of the food chain. There’s just not going to be enough out there to support you.

They need a steady supply of deep-sea drillers to make that work. It was interesting, though, because the whole movie takes place 7 miles below the surface. How often are scientists actually exploring the ocean at these levels?

Not often. Part of it is there are very few submersibles that are going to be able to go that far down. And secondly, it’s really expensive. You’re chartering an entire ship and crew and submersible, and going out to some remote location just to drop down for however long you can. Unless you’ve got a very specific mission and a lot of funding to back you up, it becomes prohibitive to do that sort of work.

We’re doing an ocean-themed day at The Ringer that is technically tied to the 17th anniversary of Finding Nemo, but frankly all I wanted was a good reason to chat with you about ocean movies again. Do you have a favorite movie set in the ocean? What’s on your short list?

There’s two and they take the extremes. One, when you talk about ocean movies, one sets the early bar, and that to me was Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I saw that one as a little kid and to me that made the ocean so exciting because they were battling giant squids and they were attacking the submersible and all this stuff. It made the ocean so interesting.

I remember distinctly when I was 10 years old and drawing pictures of submarines being attacked by giant squids and divers going out there with spear guns trying to take out the giant squids. Stuff like that, I think, had a big influence on not just me, but on other children as well.

I do believe that, at the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made, as well. So what’s the second on the other end of the spectrum?

I have to throw in Jaws just because, in terms of ocean movies, that is probably one of the most influential movies of all time. Here you had something that was a cultural phenomenon in the mid-1970s. I was a little kid so I never actually saw it at the time. This really changed people’s perception of sharks, dramatically. It’s like 40-something years later and were still feeling the effects of the Jaws phenomenon. And that really spawned things like the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

It’s had a major influence on our culture and our cultural perception of sharks in particular. In one sense it scared people and left a negative impression of sharks, but in the other sense it instilled a lot of fascination and it got some people very interested in the animals. Whichever way you want to spin it, Jaws was influential.

The other extreme that I would point out would be something like Finding Nemo, because [Pixar] actually consulted a professor—a colleague of mine. Adam Summers was the scientific consultant for that movie. He helped to set them right on so many points. You can’t get it all right, it’s a cartoon, but still they got a lot of facts correct. So it makes me hopeful that Hollywood will see that the more realistic they make the movie, the more interesting it will be. Finding Nemo really started that trend of getting scientists involved and helping Hollywood to get it right.

That’s a great point, too, because it also has a good message about protecting marine life. Finding Nemo’s a good example, but are there any favorite ocean movies in the marine biologist community for their scientific accuracy—at least by Hollywood standards?

[An extremely long pause.] [Laughs.]

I’ll take that as the answer. I would’ve been floored if you were like “Actually, Deep Blue Sea had some compelling points.”

One that was pretty good was The Abyss. They got a few things right. It’s still a movie, but they actually mentioned how at the end, when they were brought to the surface, they said, “Hey, we should be dead from decompression.” They actually had a line in the movie about that, so I said, “Good for them, they actually paid attention to that.” And other symptoms of decompression sickness, things like tremors, and the one bad guy [the Navy SEAL, played by Michael Biehn, with high-pressure nervous syndrome]. So that movie also had a few things that were accurate.

I’m sure there are a ton of contenders, but what comes to mind when I ask you to think about the most unrealistic or silliest ocean movie?

There’s so many. I guess the one that stands out for me is Deep Blue Sea. That was so entertaining, let’s say, because they tried so hard to make it realistic but it was just so wrong [laughs]. It’s been so many years since I saw it, I just remember as a student watching like, “That’s not even right, that’s not even close.” So that was definitely one of the ones in terms of top-ranked silly movies.

Sharks don’t roar, sharks don’t jump out of the water and bite you. They don’t do that. And really the whole premise of harvesting cerebral spinal fluid or whatever they were doing, sharks are not the best animals to do that.

Have you ever watched Waterworld? It is a notoriously expensive flop but it’s endearingly cheesy. I just love that movie for the ridiculous ambition of it, that whole idea of “What if the earth flooded and we all just had to live and adapt and survive on the ocean?”

Oh yeah! I forgot about Waterworld. I remember there was at some point, when [Kevin Costner] went into that walled city, there was a carcass of a hammerhead dolphin or something hanging up. So they were making up species. I was like, “This is kind of entertaining.” Doesn’t work that way, but good for them.

Off the top of my head I can’t think of a marine biologist character in a movie other than the one in Aquaman who shows up on telecasts talking about how Atlantis is real, but do you think Hollywood does a good job portraying your profession? If nothing else, at least marine biologists are never framed as the bad guy.

To this day, I would love to talk to Richard Dreyfuss, because he portrayed Hooper in Jaws and he’s from the Oceanographic Institute. He was portrayed as this cool but kind of nerdy scientist guy, and I thought that was a great portrayal of a marine biologist. He’s someone who can do the fieldwork, someone who’s maybe a bit of a nerd, but is good on the water. To me, that was a positive portrayal of a marine biologist and what we should be like, not ranting and raving “Atlantis is real!” That’s a bit unfortunate [laughs].

In the Aquaman marine biologist’s defense, within the context of the universe, he was right. Atlantis is real.

He was right, that’s true.

Let’s say a Hollywood executive reached out and they wanted you to make your own ocean movie. What’s it gonna be about, what kind of ocean creatures—real or fictional—would you want to incorporate, and who would you cast?

I would want to make a movie that’s real. As opposed to fictional creatures, there are so many interesting organisms that are out there already. I don’t think we need to make up things. The work that we do, in reality, is often quite exciting. We go out there catching sharks, putting transmitters on them—we go scuba diving, we bring up our receivers, download data, we do all this stuff. To me, even that is even cool, in and of itself. Just write in some love interest and the occasional explosion or something and you’ve pretty much got a movie. And as far as the dream cast, man, I don’t know the actors well enough to say.

Just doing your job is exciting and fun—just being a marine biologist, there’s so much happening. If we can inspire the youngsters to take an interest in this field I think that would go a very long way. Hey, if Hollywood is interested, come talk to me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.