As Garland and Fournet study the whales, director Drew Xanthopoulos is studying them, with intimate but understated camera and audio that make us feel there is no intermediary between the scientists and the audience. We are right next to them as they conduct experiments, review data, or take a few moments to share some thoughts about the experience and the consequences of choosing a life with significant periods of isolation. Garland misses her husband. Fournet says that for her, this is “real life,” more home for her than living in the midst of what is generally considered civilization. She thinks about having a child that she imagines coming with her on fieldwork.
The most fascinating part of the film is seeing the women apply the scientific method with logic and rigor, in a fearless pursuit of truth. At one point, a junior member of Fournet’s team gently suggests that a critical foundation of the investigation’s design may be less useful than they hoped, possibly even unworkable. Fournet barely takes a moment before redesigning the parameters of the research. “It doesn’t matter how much time I spent designing it,” she says, announcing, “Strong pivot … We’re making some changes to the protocol.” She is clear on the bigger question: “What is the most elegant way to be certain about something we see in nature, without exaggerating it, without hoping for it?” That’s not designer gown elegant. That is science “elegant,” meaning the fewest number of steps that might allow for some questionable, distracting, or distorting data—ideally none. There is a serious equipment failure, causing worrisome delays. And there is human error. Both are calmly noted, just more problems to be solved.
“Fathom” is an apt title for the film because it refers both to measuring the depth of water and to understand something complex after much thought. Watching the scientists research the mysteries of humpback whales is an inspiring tribute to the power of curiosity, purpose, and the triumphant joy of adding one more piece to the jigsaw puzzle of knowledge.
Now playing on AppleTV+.