There are two things I fear most in life: death and the ocean. These two things may have more in common than one might think. Human’s fear of death is fuelled almost entirely by its uncertainty; we ponder and speculate what will happen to us when we die, but we will never know until it happens to us. The ocean, on the other hand, is a deep, endless abyss that has gone mostly unexplored. Whenever one enters the ocean, it is hard not to be reminded of the untold dangers lurking beneath you.
Leviathan, released in 2012 and created by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, is an American documentary about a fishing vessel traveling the very waters than inspired Moby Dick. The film plays with different perspectives, showing the POVs of every living thing that goes in and around the ship, all shot with Go-Pros. Despite this, the film has no characters, no conversations, and no voice-over. It’s 87 straight minutes of man and machine violently clashing with nature.
The film applies this “alien-like” quality to the Earth. Not that the images aren’t recognizable, but when viewed through the perspective of the fish, the birds, and even the ship, a distance grows between the audience and the life they understand above water. The film distills human nature to its most primitive basics, showing how humans are killers and vessels for death while putting those ideas in a modern context, showing how said destruction and killing have been industrialized.
Take the fishing vessel, for example. Even though Leviathan is a characterless film, if there was a main villain, it would be the ship. Its presence in the film is both dangerous; machinery at its most horrifying. One of the most striking shots from the film shows the front of the vessel as the boat rocks up and down in the water. It brilliantly shows this ship's enormous size and sheer power as it repeatedly dunks the camera in the water, almost as if the boat is trying to drown the viewer.
On the ship, we watch men perform their jobs and daily chores. We see the boat and the life aboard it work in unison, gathering fish from the ocean in excruciatingly long nighttime sequences. The humans yell over the harsh, industrial noises of the boat as they plop their findings onto the boat. During the daytime, they organize these fish, and, in some cases, cut them into pieces, in order to get rid of the bad parts (or at least that’s what I assume is happening).
There is something so undeniably soulless about the humans on this ship, as if time simply washes over them against their will. Watching them do their work in this film is like watching them die a slow death. The tasks they perform are agonizing, boring, and inhumane. One of the most powerful shots in the film is of a man watching TV for about 4 and a half minutes straight. He coughs violently and struggles to stay awake as if his daily labor has turned him into a zombie.
As mentioned before, death is everywhere in this film. In fact, it would be a great challenge to find a movie that shows more on-screen death than Leviathan. In this movie, living creatures die on a mass scale, fish get pulled from the ocean only to be chopped up and killed, and dead fish consume other dead fish as they all swirl around in a pool of each other’s carcasses. What further accentuates the power of these killings is that the audience is so up close with them. We don’t feel like humans observing animals dying around us, but instead, we experience death alongside the animals.
One of the most notable scenes in the film involves a seagull getting trapped in a crevice of the ship. The scene is accomplished in one long shot of the seagull repeatedly attempting to take flight. The shot ends with the seagull essentially “giving up” and jumping off the boat, into the gaping pit of death that is the ocean.
Leviathan can also be enjoyed purely on the basis of its unique atmosphere. Even though the film is oftentimes disgusting, its imagery is also incredibly immersive. The night shots toward the end feature some of the most surreal imagery I have ever seen in a film. One shot, in particular, shows the camera being dragged underwater while upside down. Then, from out of nowhere, we see these unidentifiable, strange-looking fish fly past the viewer. Every time I watch it I am confused and horrified, unable to process what I just witnessed lurking in the ocean.
Watching this experimental documentary is like getting slapped in the face with a thousand dead fish, dragged across the ocean for days on end, and coming face to face with our own imminent mortality all at once. It’s a sickening and even surreal portrait of humanity’s relationship with nature that makes for one unforgettable viewing experience (or multiple, if you can stomach it).
Leviathan is currently available on Mubi.