THE LONELIEST WHALE: THE SEARCH FOR 52 -- An Emotionally Compelling Yet Self-Contradicting Nature Documentary
Review by Sean Boelman
The second of two nature documentaries about whale songs to come out this summer, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 aspires to be something more elevated but fails to subvert expectations. Predictably pretty but otherwise mostly unimpressive, this documentary is good enough to be background noise and not much else.
The film explores the story of a whale who communicates through whale songs at a frequency of 52 Hertz which is not recognized by other whales. However, to present a look at this specific (and surprisingly compelling) case study, the movie must first give the audience an understanding of basic whale communication, and this crash course ends up taking over much of the runtime.
There isn’t a whole lot of time to spare, with the film only clocking in at ninety minutes, which is what makes it disappointing that the movie spends so long on this more general information. Those with a particular interest in zoology might find the film’s discussion of the nuances of whale songs to be fascinating, but general viewers will likely find themselves disappointed by how little depth the movie goes into the more unique story of 52.
Some of the most interesting parts of the film ask questions about how humans tend to interfere with and anthropomorphize the natural world. The title refers to the theory that 52 experiences a feeling of solitude due to the fact that he is unable to communicate with other members of his species, but the argument is made that we should not impose these human feelings on a wild animal.
Filmmaker Joshua Zeman manages to make something really compelling out of a story that doesn’t have a real human subject. This is almost ironic given the fact that many people in the movie criticize people’s tendency to treat these animals as more than they are, but it does result in an uncharacteristically deep connection.
The choices in people interviewed for the film are sometimes questionable. There are the obvious scientific experts who have dedicated their lives to researching whale songs and 52, but there are some interviewees that are a bit more unorthodox, including comedian Kate Micucci. While unique, these voices ultimately don’t add much to the movie’s point.
Of course, the big reason why a lot of viewers will be trying to see this film will be to witness some breathtakingly gorgeous nature shots, and this movie delivers in this regard. The cinematography by Nelson Hume and Alan Jacobson is great and will make for some pleasing things to look at in the background as one does other things, which is what this film seems destined to be.
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 isn’t a groundbreaking nature documentary, but it is competent and solid for what it is. Those who consume this type of content regularly will be pleased, and most others will be left unimpressed.
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 hits theaters on July 9 and VOD on July 16.