I am leery of nature films because I know by the end some animal I have been rooting for will be dead. After watching “Born in China” (2017), with its doomed, adorable snow leopard cubs, I was distraught for a week.
“Turtle Odyssey,” Paul Phelan and Caspar Mazzotti’s IMAX documentary about sea turtles, looked like it might be that kind of a movie. Every film about sea turtles has at least one sequence in which the cute baby reptiles emerge from their eggs beneath the sand and scurry for the sea only to be plucked up and eaten by gulls and crabs. This tragic display of nature at its cruelest, of defenseless innocents devoured by ruthless raptors and crustaceans, could only be more pathetic in extreme high definition on the enormous IMAX screen.
And so it begins with a beach, a hatchling, and a sky full of predators. But when the IMAX lens settles on a close-up of its protagonist — the hatchling’s vulnerable, wizened E.T.-like face poking out from the cracked shell, with minutely filmed grains of sand dotting its little beak — it seems like the little guy might have a chance. And when the narrator, Russell Crowe, tells us her name — Bunji — we know it must end well. How could filmmakers give her a name like “Bunji” and have her not survive? They’d be pretty heartless indeed. This will not be the unsparing nature of a David Attenborough documentary.
Nonetheless, she starts her journey helpless and vulnerable like countless others. Her parents are long gone, cavorting in the waves somewhere. She makes it across the beach — we see none of the others gobbled up, either, as it turns out — and into the water. But as Crowe warns, this is just the beginning of the dangers she must overcome. With horror movie skill, Phelan and Mazzotti show from high above the little turtle on the surface, the shadow of a bird of prey passing over her, or the silhouette of a giant shark lurking below. Only one in a thousand of these tykes makes it to adulthood. Given the obstacles, it’s amazing any of them do.
As Crowe points out, how they manage to survive this tough transitional period has long been a mystery to scientists. Only recently did they discover that the turtles hitch a ride on bobbing clumps of seaweed; and we see Bunji nestled in her floating vegetable bed, taking an occasional bite of it, as she heads for the next stage in her journey. How is it no one has written a children’s book about this?
The next stop is a coral reef, a wonderland of party-colored creatures — including Nemo! (or at least a clown fish that looks like him). But this paradise can’t last. Bunji must fulfill her biological destiny, the same that has kept the species going for 100 million years (though the film is quick to note that the human-made perils of plastic waste, fishing nets, and propellers might put an end to that).
Now in her 20s (somehow I don’t think this is the same turtle) Bunji must set aside the good times on the high seas for a while and find a “boyfriend.” She must head back to the same beach where she was born and where with exemplary maternal determination she laboriously digs a hole and deposits a bunch of eggs. That she then skedaddles and abandons her progeny to the same desperate fate that she herself barely escaped is left unmentioned.
Though the images of ocean vistas and sea life are breathtaking, a critic might sniff at the film’s anthropomorphism and manipulative, formulaic narrative. But after the trauma of nature films like “Born in China,” the kid in me is glad Bunji survived.
“Turtle Odyssey” screens at the New England Aquarium’s Simons IMAX Theater, Central Wharf.
Go to www.neaq.org/exhibits/imax .
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.