Why ‘My Octopus Teacher’ Will School the Oscars

The Academy loves New Age high-concept documentaries

Don’t be surprised if a certain anthropomorphized cephalopod wraps its tentacles around an Oscar when the Academy Awards airs on April 25. Ever since My Octopus Teacher started streaming last September on Netflix, the little South African nature documentary with the big underwater heart—technically three hearts, but who’s counting—has achieved that rare status: a very leggy hit that keeps popping up in pop culture.

Its enthralling marine cinematography handsomely frames the murky midlife crisis of Craig Foster, a filmmaker and naturalist so burnt out on work pressures he’s looking for a professional and personal recalibration. “My family was suffering,” he explains without really explaining, while we see gauzy b-roll of his apparently mute wife and son. “I was getting sick from all the pressure,” he says without elaboration. “Your great purpose in life is now in pieces,” he reflects on his life vaguely, stressing with no context that he couldn’t be a good husband or father in his current state. “I had to have a radical change,” he says. Why? Look, just go with it. Dude needs to take a year off.

So he recharges with daily dips into the chilly waters of South Africa’s False Bay, bereft of wetsuit, unencumbered by scuba gear, threading through a kelp forest that teems with marine life. And there, he makes an unlikely bond with a sentient eight-armed mollusk known only as “her.” Holding his breath for impressively long stretches, he wordlessly approaches her den and makes himself a benign presence. Gradually, she grows bolder, emerging with caution and revealing more of herself. Eventually, improbably, she reaches out a tentacle to touch him.

Is it emotional connection or Freudian projection? You be the judge! Actually, let’s be frank, it’s all projection, don’t kid yourself. Foster gets so intensely fixated on these aquatic assignations that their brief moments of physical intimacy—her nuzzling his hand, her outspread on his bare chest—give new meaning to the word Octopussy. “So How Horny Is the Netflix Octopus Movie?” asked a recent Vulture thought piece. Answer: My Octopus Teacher is not very horny, but just enough to be unsettling. Japanese tentacle porn just got its first G-rated live-action film.

Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s remarkable but cloying documentary is that rare Oscar bait not focused on social justice issues or overtly political causes. It isn’t an exposé of corrupt Romanian bureaucracy (Collective), nor a cheeky investigative look at a Chilean nursing home (The Mole Agent). It doesn’t chronicle the heartwarming origins of U.S. disability rights (Crip Camp) or the heartbreaking state of corrosively punitive incarceration in America (Time). It’s about a lonely man and his friendship with a sea creature. It’s an outlier.

But it’s the type of high-concept movie with New Age vibes that charms AMPAS voters. It’s got those all-the-feels revelations about the secret wonder of Our Blue Planet that netted Jacques Cousteau two Best Documentary Oscars. It’s March of the Penguins for a forlorn humanity looking for post-pandemic rejuvenation. It feels like a shoo-in. Don’t take my word for it: last month, My Octopus Teacher took home the Producer’s Guild Award for Best Documentary, and last week it nabbed the British Academy Award for Best Documentary at the BAFTAs. Over at the Oscar website Gold Derby, 16 of its 25 prognosticators chose it as their top pick to win. Runner-up Time has a distant five votes.

But is it cinematically worthy? Actually, yes. Like another recent Oscar-winning outlier, 2018’s Free Solo, this film uses state-of-the-art camerawork, deft editing, impeccable sound design, and a rousing score to craft a well-paced emotional narrative that’s constantly engaging and occasionally sublime. Ehlich and Reed’s sensibilities as storytellers make this nature doc feel both risibly unscientific and yet utterly essential to oceanographic studies.

The human story is banal to the point of ridicule: by the end, Foster has become a better father by allowing his son to join him on his undersea diving expeditions? What a stretch—way to put in the personal work, buddy. He also has an irksome habit of imagining thoughts in the octopus’s head: “I trust you, human, and now you can come into my octopus world,” he speculates. Um, no. “You go and you interact with this human,” he opines, “and perhaps it does give you some strange octopus level of joy.” Bitch, please. Although “strange octopus level of joy” really should be the title of a Japanese tentacle porn film.

The film’s chronology is also specious: the life cycle of an octopus vulgaris is just over a year, Foster explains, but the filmmakers somehow used footage they had shot over the course of a decade. You-are-there nailbiter scenes of the octopus evading a predator pajama shark seem too perfectly blocked and camera-positioned to have been shot in the moment. And, seriously, how long can Foster really hold his goddamned breath underwater?

Never mind, My Octopus Teacher is best enjoyed with an open heart and an empty mind. It’s at its best simply showcasing this sentient invertebrate in all her shape-shifting, pigment-changing, texture-shifting, liquid flesh glory. Using her sucker cups to assemble an array of shell shields for protection and camouflage; walking bipedally on two of her arms; regenerating a ripped-off limb after a violent attack; and finally succumbing to the circle of life as she gets eaten alive after laying hundreds of thousands of eggs. Foster’s octopus companion is endlessly illuminating and wildly inspiring—whether there’s a human there or not.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

One thought on “Why ‘My Octopus Teacher’ Will School the Oscars

  • April 25, 2021 at 12:15 pm
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    Ranking of understanding of sentience and sentient behavior:

    Myself (non-degree grad student, Harvard psych dept., 4 years)
    Craig Foster
    “Her” the octopus (intuitive)
    Kelp
    Stephen Garrett

    I’m not being sarcastic here: when you’re completely ignorant and make forceful, mocking, incorrect statements, your grade is less than zero. The short version: imagine this review was written in the 1960’s about the first human-chimp doc.

    The longer version: above a certain level of brain complexity, all behavior is regulated by conscious emotions or “feelings” (Antonio Damasio), the neurochemicals that regulate consciousness (dopamine, serotonin, etc.) are the same in mollusks (in fact, worms) as in film reviewers, conscious states are broadcast to the entire brain (neuronal global workspace theory, Bernard Baars, Stanislas Dehaene), the brain attribute that signals the requisite complexity for consciousness is therefore modularity (me, in a letter in New Scientist magazine), octopuses have astonishingly modular nervous systems, so they could be expected to evolve sophisticated conscious thought (me, in a comment on a clueless film review), “her” evident intelligence requires a memory of her own thought processes, so that they can be evaluated after the fact and improved (me again, but while watching the doc), and that’s the prerequisite for self-awareness (me, again as I type).

    It took me a while to figure out the evolutionary rationale for “her” continued physical contact with Foster, but I believe that after evaluating him as non-threatening, and his behavior as highly sophisticated, she was recruiting him as an ally, as an active defensive agent. And all that behavior would be accompanied by positive emotions like trust…and an octopus version of joy.

    And of course film attributes like “boring” or “mindless” are a collaboration between the film and the brain of the viewer. Sometimes it’s all the viewer, as you demonstrate. And for the record, I think the Oscar should go to Crip Camp.

    Reply

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