Director Jeff Orlowski’s motivations are clear from the beginning of the Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.” For a brief minute, he becomes his own subject, taking a seat in front of the camera to personally relay the deep impact that seeing images of dead coral reefs had on him, and to confess his goal of documenting the change, in order to “reveal [it] to the public in a powerful way.” As a rallying cry for coral reef preservation, “Chasing Coral” is quite effective. While it does pay beyond fair deference to the science behind coral reefs and their devastation, its real strength lies within the pathos generated by the visuals that showcase the exact nature of their precarious state.
Beginning with only the image of the reefs, Orlowski first disguises its grim message with the beauty of its subject, and the crisp, otherworldly high-definition underwater photography thereof, before sharply placing, in contrast, the living coral reef with instances of the dead. The once serene deep-sea imagery becomes haunting. The divergence between the two images lingers, and the pain felt from witnessing something once so lush and alive now gray and inanimate is clear, even if that something felt so inconsequential moments before beginning the documentary. Here is the science for the layman — the image of beauty under threat.
The science soon follows — a bit heavily — and transforms the reefs into more than just a visual treat. It may lean a bit too scientifically, however. Some previous knowledge feels necessary to translate some of the experts’ statements, and some of the technical explanations early on are contrived in a way that feels unnecessary. Still, there is some satisfaction to be gained from simply hearing intelligent people talk about what they are passionate about the most. At one point, the documentary focuses on Zack Rago, an underwater camera technician. His love is contagious, and the brief sequence is a burst of joy. Baffled, fellow interviewee Trevor Mendelow comments: “He just loves coral, even to the point where he has coral reef tanks at his house with no fish in them — nobody has coral reef tanks with no fish in them.”
It’s quite spectacular, really, how the “Chasing Coral” is able to generate sympathy for its subject matter. I only worry that this might end up being one of those situations where those who need the documentary to open their eyes up to the environmental travesty (happening far from under their noses) might not be the type of people interested in watching a long form documentary about the subject. Regardless, Orlowski and the various teams of divers, scientists, photographers, and coral enthusiasts make it pretty easy to sympathize with the coral’s plight. [B-]