Wednesday, February 8, 2012

CultureLab - Big Miracle: Drew Barrymore saves whales trapped in ice

Casey Rentz, contributor
(Image: Universal/Everett/Rex Features)

In the tradition of empathy evoking mammal movies like Free Willy and more recently Dolphin Tale, Big Miracle is the story of humans getting sentimental about stranded grey whales and undertaking monumental efforts to save them. It’s heart-warming, harrowing and a bit more of a grown-up movie than its predecessors. But, somehow, it doesn’t deliver the same take-away satisfaction.
The year was 1988 and the California grey whale had made such a comeback it had been bumped off the endangered species list. The place was Barrow, Alaska and the surrounding desolate expanse of icy wilderness. In the film, a local boy called Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney) and his twenty-something TV producer friend, Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), are out messing around on the ice. After following some strange sounds, the duo stumble upon three California grey whales - an adult female, adult male, and toddler male - stuck in an ice hole, only five metres in diameter. The water around the whales had frozen rapidly, and now 8 kilometres of ice barred them from swimming out to the open sea.
Whales getting stuck in ice is no great mystery. To keep away from killer whales and other predators, California grey whales spend most of their lives in shallow waters, no deeper than their 16-metre length. Inuit people do find grey whales stuck in the ice in Northern Alaska, and sometimes end up killing them for food (though they aren't a traditional food source).
In this particular instance, however, publicity played a major part in what happened next. The TV producer’s footage of the trapped gray whales, taking turns surfacing in an unnatural, projectile-like way, made it to NBC national news, and people everywhere started latching on to the story. As in real life, in the film reporters flock from all over the “lower 48” to document the rescue efforts, starring local Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore). Many pitched in because it was great PR: an oil-drilling magnate named J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) offered his hover barge for making a path through the ice, the coast guard helped, the locals broke out their chainsaws to cut through the ice, and President Reagan negotiated the final whale-saving move. In the movie, the struggle was not so much about doing good for grey whales, as it was about the human capacity to empathise with animals.
Empathy is a fundamental mammalian emotion, as biologist Frans de Waal argues in his book The Age of Empathy. It comes from our need to take care of our young for an elongated period of time, compared to other types of animals. At a particularly reflective moment in Big Miracle, Adam turns to Rachel and asks, “Why do we care?” She replies, “Even though they are big and powerful, they’re vulnerable, too…They know what’s going on. They’re scared.”
It may be that humans look at other mammals like whales and dogs as if they are children - helpless in many tasks (like using tools) that we consider routine, but capable of suffering. In the midst of the final Big Miracle rescue, all kinds of people peer down the ice hole, worried and eventually frantic. It’s no wonder that commercials for conservation groups focus on images of plighted animals.
Whether or how whales actually experience suffering is another matter entirely, and scientists don’t yet have the answer. According to recent research, they have spindle neurons, which some scientists think belong to the cognitive elite like humans, chimpanzees, and dolphins.
At the end of Big Miracle, we learn the spoils of the whale-freeing publicity frenzy: the membership to Greenpeace doubled in the years following. Rachel (based on real-life activist Cindy Lowry) certainly got what she wanted out of the efforts. But, for everyone else, there’s no telling how quickly the empathy wore off.
The same goes for movie-viewers. Big Miracle made me laugh and cry, but as I walked out of the theatre, I couldn’t help but think that the $1 million price tag of Operation Breakthrough, as it was called, could have been spent in a better way. Dolphin Tale resulted in new technologies and prosthetics that are still useful today. In Free Willy, the boy’s heart-melting vigilante-ism didn’t cost a thing, (even if scientists debate whether freeing Willy was indeed the best thing for him). Operation Breakthrough’s $1 million could have bought a lot in technology for improving the lives of all grey whales, as some scientists criticised at the time, but that’s not the way it went down.
Still, raising awareness for the whales has some value, and is not a bad consolation prize.
Big Miracle is currently showing in cinemas throughout the US. It opens in the UK on 10 February.

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