The ecological drama fails to break the surface.
As unique and fascinating many of Australia’s terrestrial fauna are, the truly awe-inspiring creatures that call the world’s smallest continent home are to be found right below its surface, in the surrounding depths of the Pacific Ocean. Although the Great Barrier Reef is the largest and most famous of the nation’s underwater ecosystems, it is by no means the only one; the Ningaloo Reef in western Australia, just north of Perth, is another harboring marine life in all its splendor. And like all of the world’s coral reefs, pollution, poaching and other human activity have left it and its denizens critically endangered.
It seems at first Blueback will show this hidden part of Australia in all its glory and expose the danger it faces from human hubris. In the opening credit sequence, marine biologist Abby (Mia Wasikowska), swims past a whale shark, a school of manta rays and other living wonders as she gathers samples for her studies of the Ningaloo Reef. It’s heartbreaking then when she stops before a skeletal field of bleached coral, reminding us not all is well down there. “Your home is dying,” she tells some captive fish after studying a coral sample under the microscope. “And I don’t know how to help.”
Her lab work is suddenly interrupted when her mother (Elizabeth Alexander) suffers a stroke. As she makes the trip back home, Abby flashes back to how her mom (now played by Radha Mitchell), an abalone fisher, taught her to deep dive, to love the underwater world and its denizens and to properly respect both, a respect sadly too many others didn’t and still don’t share. During one such deep-diving lesson, she encountered a Western blue groper, one of the largest of the reef’s bony fish species. Instead of fleeing, the fish approached Abby as she reached out to it, and seemed to reciprocate her affection. The Blueback of the title, it winds up being the other major figure of any species to influence Abby’s life.
From then on, the bulk of the movie focuses on the younger Abby, played by Ariel Donoghue as a child and by Ilsa Fogg as a teenager. And unfortunately, the movie then settles into the familiar trappings of the socially-aware coming-of-age storyline. Despite her top billing, Wasikowska is absent for much of the middle section of the film, with Fogg and Mitchell taking center stage. Instead of going back beneath the ocean to visit the undersea wonders that captured Abby’s heart and mind and that she has devoted herself to protecting, the movie focuses instead on the activism of her mother and others in their tightly-knit coastal community as they fight against an unwanted housing development. And so, we get plenty of over-familiar scenes of protest rallies and mother-daughter arguments and not enough of the unfamiliar, the undersea marvels placed in peril by urban planners.
I had the bad luck of watching Blueback too soon after watching North of Normal, another movie about the relationship between a daughter and her independent-minded mother that relied heavily on a flashback structure to tell its story. In that film, the flashbacks served as a tool, essential to not just telling the story properly, but to understanding the growth of the characters and their relationships. Here it’s a gimmick that results in two major problems. First, since we already know that Abby and her mother will still be alive in the present, there is no suspense even when they find themselves in potentially life-threatening situations. Second, it essentially limits the character and relationship development, since we already know how they will turn out. This is true of not just Abby’s relationship with her mother, but with her grammar school boyfriend Briggs, played by Pedrea Jackson as a teenager and Clarence Ryan as an adult. This relationship is more interesting than the mother-daughter one since Briggs, as an Aborigine, has a very personal reason to stop the continued destruction of the local environment. For him and many others, it’s also a matter of cultural survival. Unfortunately, how this affects Abby’s views remains frustratingly unclear. Their teen romance is limited to painfully symbolic shots of the two walking past whale skeletons and construction vehicles, while they just exchange polite pleasantries as adults. Since they’re “just friends” in the present, it’s already obvious that their young love won’t last, but there’s not enough scenes of their present friendship to help understand their relationship now or how it changed through the years.
The acting is fine all around, but the only character and performance to leave a lasting impression is Eric Bana’s fellow abalone gatherer. He’s less environmentally responsible than Abby and her mother, and occasionally falls into “ugly Australian” stereotypes, but is overall a good bloke. It’s unfortunate then when he literally disappears midway through the movie, never to return. The main villains are an unscrupulous land developer named Costello (Erik Thomson) and various faceless poachers and construction workers who exist mainly to get yelled at by Radha Mitchell. There’s no attempt at nuance, to have them put forth their own argument of why they do what they do. In one especially groan-inducing scene, the middle-aged Costello bullies the teenage Abby right before she’s about to present her case before town council, actually telling her “you don’t really expect to win, do you?” That’s the sort of clichéd, obvious line one expects from a Karate Kid sequel, not a family film about ecological responsibility.
Blueback winds up being one of the most difficult types of film to review, appropriate for all ages and admirable in its agenda, yet at the same time an unsatisfying experience for many. Children, especially those who already love animals and the environment, will want more scenes of the younger Abby underwater, and especially more scenes with her beloved Blueback. Adults, meanwhile, will want more scenes of the grown-up Abby at work as a scientist and revealing more about her present life and relationship with her mother between adulthood and adolescence. Hopefully, it’ll get more people of all ages to read the novel by Tim Winton the film is based on. A living legend in Australia for both his writing and environmental advocacy, Winton is said to be the rare activist writer whose work succeeds as both rhetoric and literature. I was left wondering how well he conveys Australia’s natural beauty through his prose, and if he did a better job at developing characters and avoiding cliches than the movie did.
I wish I could say that the scenes featuring the titular Blueback save the film, but sadly they don’t. They’re too brief, we don’t get enough of them, and they’re quite repetitive. Abby swims back towards Blueback’s territory, Blueback swims up to her, Abby extends her hand, and then Blueback nuzzles her affectionately. The fact sheet on the official Blueback website assures us that the Western blue groper does indeed behave this way with human divers, but the fish in the movie seems to do so in a strangely mammalian fashion. And that brings up another problem: it’s painfully obvious that these scenes feature not an actual fish but an animatronic puppet, and worse yet, the design seems to try to impart human qualities to it. We get frequent close-up shots of the fish’s eyes and somehow almost see genuine emotion in them. It even seems to smile once in a while. That’s the totally wrong way to go about it; these are wonderfully distinct creatures, and they have every right to live on this Earth regardless of whether or not we identify with them. Trying to humanize this already beautiful animal just doesn’t work at all. Strange, isn’t it, how the problems with Blueback the fish are almost exactly the opposite as those with Blueback the movie?