The Last Reef

Advocacy film delivers “Cities beneath the Sea” in 3D IMAX, bringing you nudibranchs as you’ve never seen them before and activism that you have.

By Liza Lester, ESA communications officer.

Silent evolution: an undersea scupture garden

La Evolución Silenciosa (The Silent Evolution), an installation of 400 life-size figures 9 meters under the sea off Cancun / Isla Mujeres, Mexico, is featured in the new IMAX film The Last Reef: Cities beneath the Sea. Credit, Jason deCaires Taylor.

WE OPEN with an atomic explosion mushrooming over Bikini Atoll. Historic footage, made 3D through the magic of post-production graphic arts, rolls on a projector screen in a 3D schoolroom. In 1946, the United States removed all humans from Bikini in preparation for atomic tests that would span twelve years and 23 nuclear detonations. Lingering radioactivity has kept people away. In our absence, the disembodied voice of Jamie Lee tells us, the reef has rebounded. Fishy, invertebrate and microbial life now thrives on the resurgent coral (with the exception of a few species that didn’t make it back).

From this promising beginning, The Last Reef plunges us into the present, into the ocean, into full throttle modern 3D-IMAX, and into an old school advocacy film, heavy with environmental rhetoric and swelling music. “We love working with images and music,” said director Steve McNicholas, during the post-preview panel discussion at AAAS headquarters, explaining that he and co-creator Luke Cresswell are not scientists or wildlife documentarians, and began filming the ocean because they wanted to take us on an underwater adventure. During the filming of their first underwater feature they awakened to the not-so-beautiful developments in the ocean resulting from fishing, shipping, agriculture, and fossil fuel combustion. “Mid-way through making Wild Ocean we became quite politicized.”

The team behind the Broadway sensation STOMP!, McNicholas and Cresswell know what they are doing with sight and sound.  They commissioned a novel containment system from cinematographer D.J. Roller to house the massive 3D macro beamsplitting IMAX camera system, helping him shoot closer close-ups of reef creatures underwater. You have never seen nudibranchs like this before! A soundtrack thrumming with complicated rhythms (and a descending harp line reminiscent of John Adams’ El Nino) matches the vibrant underwater colors and textures, occasionally freezing with anxiety or swelling with promise as the narrator tells us of human threats to the reefs.

McNicolas and Cresswell intercut scenes of the reef “cities beneath the sea” with some beautiful, if frenetic, footage of New York City – drawing an analogy of two kinds of communities built on the accretions of past generations. We get a simple introduction to the ecology of the reef, couched in balance-of-nature oratory; the coral community is not merely interdependent, but lovingly interconnected. Suddenly, “acidification” and “CO2” irrupt into our gentle world. McNicolas and Cresswell want to show us the damage to reefs caused by human pursuits. “Our cities are altering the chemistry of the oceans,” says the narrator, transitioning neatly on a cliché and ignoring the power plants, highways, agricultural installations, and other constructs of human industry producing carbon dioxide and pollution and environmental pressures from outside city limits.

The onset of technical terminology is particularly jarring after the second grade natural history lesson we’ve been receiving so far, and here the directors’ imaginations fail them. Chemical formulae “CO2(aq)”, “H2CO3” and “HCO3“ appear and float amongst the fish as the narrator tells us that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide,a consequence of our prodigious burning of oil, coal and natural gas, dissolves in the water, lowering the pH of the ocean. If you don’t know what pH is and haven’t heard this story before, you won’t understand it now.

With the exception of iconic NYC, the film feels almost placeless. As we flick from city-scape to island-scape, the narrator rarely tells us where we are, perhaps in an effort to draw us closer to far away places. But much of the reef footage was shot in Palau, an island nation in Micronesia. Senator and former president Thomas Esang Remengesau, Jr. flew across the Pacific to tell the US audience about the particular cost to his country of the loss of coral reefs. “It’s not all about sunshine in Palau these days,” he said.

Members of the audience wondered how we can get people to act to save reefs in Palau when they don’t believe in climate change, remarking that the film was preaching to the choir in the AAAS auditorium. “What efforts are you making to get this out to megachurches in the Midwest?” asked one man, prompting my seatmate to whisper that there was “a lot of condescension going on in here.”

Diver, zoologist, and Science Magazine editor Sacha Vignieri said, “Films like these help because you have to be able to grab someone’s heartstrings to get them to listen. Some people’s minds can’t be changed, they are only interested in the bottom line, but there are people who can be persuaded.”

Vignieri thinks blast fishing with dynamite to stun fish, cyanide fishing to capture exotic aquarium fish, and straight over-fishing are more pressing threats to coral reefs than climate change. “Some research even says that coral may be able to adapt relatively quickly to acidification,” she said. Her fellow Science editor on the panel, Jesse Smith, conceded that in the 500 million years of coral reef evolution, temperatures have been hotter, and pH has been lower, many times.

But McNicolas and Cresswell are evangelists. They would rather we stop wringing our hands and do something. “Try something, even if it’s wrong,” said McNicolas. It’s not going to hurt anybody.” Unfortunately, that isn’t true. ♦


The Last Reef had its East Coast premier last night at the National Museum of Natural History, Johnson IMAX Theater as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival. No word yet on where you may see The Last Reef in your area; the filmmakers appear to be looking for a US distributer.

In the meantime, you can learn more about corals, coral reefs, and overfishing from the BBC/Discovery Channel Blue Planet episodes “Coral Seas” and “Coral reef fish danger,” PBS Nature episode “War Wrecks of the Coral Seas,” and PBS Frontline short “Tuvalu: that Sinking Feeling.” See sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater projects at National Geographic and on his website.

Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for blogging about our film, sorry I didn’t see this until now. I just wanted to follow up on a couple of things you mention here. I agree, we are unashamed evangelists regarding preserving and restoring the world’s reefs, and I certainly take on the jaw your criticisms (‘2nd grade natural history lesson”!), but would counter that the majority of our audiences will see the movie in a giant screen environment with a powerful surround sound system that is as far removed from the AAAS lecture room as you can possibly imagine. Imagery, music and information whirl together in a way quite unlike any other viewing experience, so we have to be very careful about what and how we say what we feel to be important. I believe that the most important thing our film can do is drive our audience to seek out more information outside of the theatre; if we can ignite an interest, we’ve done our job.

    Our films can stay in the global large format market for many years: another reason we have to be careful about specifics in our narration, facts change, statistics change. We focussed on acidification and not bleaching or dynamiting (although we do mention them) because of its global importance and, as you point out, to help emphasise our local connection to a distant, exotic environment..

    When I said we became “politicised” it was during the making of our previous film “Wild Ocean”, and specifically with reference to the book “The Unnatural History of the Sea” by Professor Callum Roberts and the subject of overfishing and marine reserves.

    I don’t recall saying “try something, even if its wrong, its not going to hurt anybody”, it doesn’t really make any sense to me… so I’m befuddled by your closing statement. Certainly I agree we need to inspire people to act as guardians of our environment for the sake of future generations.

    FInally, we are not, and never have been looking for a US distributor. The Last Reef has always been from its very conception to be distributed by Chicago based Giant Screen Films. Giant Screen 3D roll out however is quite unlike feature or regular documentary release, as the films are sold and marketed on a theatre by theatre basis, not in any kind of nationwide launch. Hence the film is open in Albuquerque, Kuwait and Sydney, but it may be several months or even another year before it opens in other specific cities worldwide. In more ways than one, Giant Screen 3D cinema is a very different kind of cinematic beast.

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