First, the title of the documentary (although dramatic) is somewhat misleading. Certainly there were periods of darkness to be had at a depth of thirty feet below the surface of the ocean. But enough of the sun would penetrate to where the daylight scenes were painted in pastels of blue, green and gray. Through this landscape the “oceanauts” would glide, using their machines and equipment to explore the surrounding environment.
“World Without Sun” was the 1964 account of the activities by Jacques Cousteau and his team in their 1963 “Continental Shelf Station Two” experiment. Partially funded by the French petrochemical industry, “Conshelf Two” was a month long effort designed to see if humans could live and work for extended periods of time on the ocean floor. Located in the Red Sea, off the coast of Sudan, Conshelf Two was a small community composed of a central base/laboratory/living quarters (Starfish House) which held six people, an undersea garage for Cousteau’s famed Diving Saucer and a structure further down (Deep Cabin) in which two men would live for a week at a depth of one hundred feet.
All of this sounds like the openings of several science-fiction films (“Deepstar Six” and “The Abyss” immediately come to mind). But this documentary covered actual events, and so it bore both the virtue of realism and the lack of scripted melodrama. Or maybe not. “World Without Sun” serves as a pretty good illustration of the phrase “six of one, half dozen of the other”. One the one hand, it’s difficult to deny the fact that, rather than seeing a product of special effects and model work, the documentary presented an actual account of men (and, very briefly, one woman*) living and working beneath the surface of the ocean. This wasn’t a concoction of some novelist or pulp writer . . . it was actually happening.
(*Simone Cousteau . . . Jacques’ wife . . . went down to Starfish House to spend the last four days of the project with her husband. If there are flaws to “World Without Sun”, then it’s in a lack of footage involving that event. A few more human touches would’ve made the film more accessible to the audience.)
On the other hand, the art of undersea photography was still in its infancy. The feature was directed by Cousteau (who, while he definitely possessed an eye for the attractive shot, was no Kubrick) and both director of cinematography Pierre Goupil and camera operator Gilbert Duhalde were not working in the best of all possible conditions. By contemporary standards the film is grainy in portions, the lighting occasionally inadequate (hey . . . world without sun, eh?). You would almost expect better results with a cellphone camera and a halfway decent editing program on a laptop or tablet. If Conshelf Two had been attempted today, and if the project included someone of the caliber of, say, James Cameron, then the resulting documentary would be sheer brilliance.
Not that “World Without Sun” is without excellence on its own merits (merits which, among other things, gave the film a Best Documentary Oscar). It’s difficult to deny the beauty of Cousteau and his oceanauts as they swim about in the course of their duties. There’re also some very watchable shots of aquatic life, echoing the work Cousteau did in his earlier feature “The Silent World”, and building a foundation for his later television documentary series. The viewer also gets interesting shots of the Conshelf Two crew living and working in both Starfish House and Deep Cabin while, at the same time, curious fish peer in at them from the other side of the windows. Perhaps one needs to be an oceanography geek (such as I am) to garner full enjoyment from such scenes. But this is an example of “context” (a word which I admittedly misuse on many occasions). The attraction of “World Without Sun” lies in the context of appreciating the fact that here we are seeing actual real people living in what amounts to an actual village under the sea. Obviously it’s not something for all tastes. For one thing, it requires a sense of imagination and curiosity to fully appreciate what’s being shown.
(And it really doesn’t get more real than this, pumpkins. French scientists . . . and perhaps Russian ones as well . . . tend to be more unpretentious than their American counterparts. Putting it another way: I doubt there’s been as much smoking and wine drinking and attention to cuisine on the undersea exploits of other nations. I always applauded astronaut John Young for smuggling a corned beef sandwich on board Gemini-3. Yes, it was totally contraband. It was also totally human; an ingredient woefully missing from a lot of scientific exploration.)
(Also worthy of applause was the addition of a parrot to the inhabitants of Starfish House. Ostensibly brought along because of its useful sensitivity to possibly dangerous changes in the environment, the parrot becomes a point of interest in the film. Among other things it learns to imitate the ringtone of the communication system. And there’s an undeniable twinge of wonder in seeing one of the oceanauts holding the parrot up to a window in Starfish House, letting it see the fish swimming about on the other side.)
A few criticisms were leveled against “World Without Sun”. Notably that a scene involving the exploration of a narrow undersea cave was partially staged. Cousteau went on to defend his work, but I feel that if the activities “World Without Sun” had indeed been staged then the results would’ve been more dramatic. For example: the scenes showing life in Deep Cabin did little to demonstrate that the week-long experience of the two oceanauts who lived in it was entirely uncomfortable. And a much more “staged” performance might’ve produced shots possessing a greater sense of drama.
But drama does exist in the documentary. A call for additional air tanks brings forth an immediate response by oceanauts gliding out from their undersea garage on portable scooters . . . a scene worthy of a James Bond film. Along with Cousteau and his crew we becomes witnesses to undersea life forms never before seen. And Cousteau’s Diving Saucer is practically a special effect in its own right.
The music in “World Without Sun” comes courtesy of Serge Baudo, Henri Crolla and Andre Hodeir. Rather than settling on an overall theme, the soundtrack changes style to fit what’s happening on the screen: contemplative jazz to match the shifting scenes of ocean life, comedic tunes to follow the antics of scallops dancing on the sea floor, or dramatic tocsins whenever the Diving Saucer is busy at work. As with the cinematography the results of the music are varied in its effectiveness, but one is tempted to award an A minus for effort.
Conshelf Two took place back in the heady days of the early 1960s, when the oceans, as well as space, were being opened up for exploration and possible habitation by humanity. The project was, in fact, a prototype for what was then hoped to be the first in a series of permanent communities on the ocean floor. But with this, and the subsequent Conshelf Three effort, Cousteau experienced a sort of sea-change (no pun intended). Rather than continue working towards opening the sea floor up to commercial concerns, Cousteau turned instead to conservation. Whereas I cannot condemn the man for respecting Life, I watch films such as “World Without Sun” and feel that a grave disservice has been done by not extending such efforts. It’s true that results can be easily achieved today by deep-diving robots, but I personally feel that our efforts to preserve the sea actually work to keep it at arm’s length, and out of sight. And it’s much too easy to ruin something which is always out of sight. “World Without Sun” demonstrated how, back in 1963, the first real possible steps were made to allow humans to mingle their lives with the environment of the sea. If we had continued then such a mingling might have made the sea much more important to us. Much more important, and by extension much more precious. For this glimpse alone I give thanks to the memory of Cousteau, and the accomplishments which “World Without Sun” visualized.