Sundance attendees at the fantastic Grand Theater at Salt Lake Community College gave a warm welcome to Deep Rising director Matthieu Rytz, based in Montreal, and Dr. Sandor Mulsow, from the University of Southern Chile. The professor, and former Director of Environmental Management at the International Seabed Authority, asked the audience of about 200 people who has read the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, only two people raised their hands. Rejected by the Reagan administration four decades ago even though it was agreed to by 98 percent of the rest of the world, it is not well known today.
The film’s completion comes as the obscure International Seabed Authority is on the brink of allowing private companies to shift operations along the ocean floor from exploration to exploitation. Technology is ready to roll that will allow the harvest of strategic metals. A central character in Deep Rising is the often-convincing entrepreneur Gerard Barron, who jets around the world raising money and trying to persuade regulators to let his company collect deep-sea nodules rich with promise. He touts potential game changing impact, enough supply to make the manufacturing of electric car batteries less destructive, permanently.
Onstage in Salt Lake City, the far less glamorous marine biologist Mulsow, explained the challenge of countering the seductive sales pitch in favor of protecting the ocean’s integrity. “We communicate in technical reports,” he bemoaned. “We need more artists, more musicians, more poets to communicate something this complex. We need cultural translation.
I asked Rytz during the Q&A about the process of writing the narration for the film near the end of the five-year production timeline. Rytz worked together with co-writer Dr. Helen Scales who he calls “a brilliant scientist” pointing to her book The Brilliant Abyss as key source material because it’s “easy to read.”
Rytz told me bringing aboard the movie star Jason Momoa, who portrays Aquaman in the DC Universe, as the narrator of Deep Rising was like icing on the cake. “We needed a voice. He understood that. I told him, we need your superpower.”
Rytz continued, “It’s personal for (Jason), he’s linked to the ocean through his father and his grandfather. He calls Deep Rising the most important project he’s been part of.”
The director brought Deep Rising to Sundance for its premiere and hopes to find a distributor. He told the Sundance audiences that he wants to do an IMAX version next. Deep Rising contains plenty of big screen-worthy footage for a traditional theatrical run at least. Given his star power and Jason Momoa’s raspy whisper, narration about “the unstoppable march toward self-destruction” goes down a bit easier.
Still, the complexity of the material might make it a tough sell for mainstream audiences. Abstract montages of elaborate organisms living in the deep sea are interspersed with history lessons, detailed scientific explanations, footage of opposition to extraction of rare earth metals on land, promotional b-roll of clean energy marketing campaigns, and exclusive shots of deep-sea mining fundraising pitches with blurred faces for certain high net worth individuals.
Among the first reviews published over the weekend, Variety called Deep Rising “vague,” and the Hollywood Reporter called it “murky.” The director is a visual anthropologist by training, and it is possible the film’s reach could be narrower due to his intentionally indeterminate ideological positioning. This isn’t an Al Gore polemic or a Michael Moore box office sensation. During an on-camera interview in Park City on Friday, Rytz said, “as a filmmaker, I’m here to provoke reflection, you know, asking questions. So, I’m not really here to come up with a very straightforward conclusion at the end. What I want to do is trigger debate.”
He’s doing that, but maybe not in the way he intended. Moviegoers wondered aloud what the filmmakers see as an alternative to the electric car and battery power storage gamble the deep-sea mining advocates are wagering on. During the Q&A we were told green hydrogen would be a preferred solution, but that’s not part of the movie. Matthieu Rytz and Dr. Mulsow want motivated viewers not only to read the 150-page UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but also to send letters to President Joe Biden asking him to sign the U.S. onto the convention. But that campaign concept isn’t part of the movie either. Deep Rising is the result of a great deal of work and the subject is extremely important. However, it might require one of Aquaman’s superpowers, to communicate telepathically with the creatures of the sea, for the film to find a wide audience.