Review: SEA OF SHADOWS Is A Well-Made But Hard-To-Watch Documentary


Sea of Shadows is a challenging film, but that is the purpose, as the film is meant to start conversation about the subject matter.
Entertainment Value
Technical Merit

Sea of Shadows, directed by Richard Ladkani, is a new documentary from National Geographic Films that hopes to bring about both social and environmental change. The film explores the illegal totoaba fishing industry and its negative impact on the endangered vaquita, the smallest whale in the world.

This story is extremely interesting and intricate, and that is a majority of the movie’s appeal. However, the filmmakers are never able to streamline all of the moving parts in the story, and as a result, the film comes close to the line of incohesiveness. The movie tries to balance the endangerment of the vaquita, the totoaba trade, the effects on the fishermen, and the connections to the mafia at the expense of depth in any of them.

The film is at its most effective when it is discussing the most important issue in the story: the endangerment of the vaquita. With this topic, the movie is addressing the need for sustainability and environmental responsibility. Although Sea of Shadows isn’t as effective of an exposé as some other marine-life-based documentaries, it still gets its message across about what it means to be a citizen of the world.

It is likely that the film will tug the heartstrings of many members of the audience, as some of the imagery that the movie contains is pretty horrifying. It is extremely sad to think that people would actually do something like this to a living creature, and yet it is an unignorable fact. Perhaps this film will be enough of an eye-opener and conversation-starter to incite actually change.

sea of shadows totaba
Confiscated fresh totoaba swim bladder at a Mexican police station. (photo credit: National Geographic)

Not as effective are the movie’s human subjects. Arguably the protagonist of the film is a Mexican journalist who sets out to investigate the crisis and find a way to help fix it. He is the most compelling person in the movie, although the filmmakers don’t do enough to establish the stakes that he faces.

The rest of the human subjects aren’t even close to being developed enough to be significant. The filmmakers should have explored some of the other people involved in the story, like the volunteers who work to remove the nets or the fishermen who are displaced by the ban. These storylines show a ton of potential for emotional resonance or substantial commentary, but are never fully explored.

On a technical level, the film is extremely impressive, but you would expect nothing less from National Geographic. The visuals of the movie create a juxtaposition between the beautiful expanse that the ocean provides and the horrors that humanity has committed against these totoaba and vaquitas.

Sea of Shadows may not be a home run, but it does achieve the goals which it set out to accomplish. Hopefully enough people see this film for it to be as impactful as it should be.

Sea of Shadows opens in theaters on July 12.


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Sean Boelman
Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.


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