Science Is Fiction: An Impeccable Eye on Nature

The films, made decades ago, remain as inventive and visually captivating as any non-fiction films ever made.

The wildlife film seems to be undergoing a renaissance these days, driven not so much by high ideals but by high definition. After all, the recent BBC series/home video sensation Planet Earth found ways to tell amazing stories about the dwindling diversity of our fauna, but it didn't hurt its appeal that it came along at a time when early adopters would pay good money to gape at footage of whales and polar bears delivered in 1080p resolution. Rote National Geographic specials are beating fictional film classics to Blu-ray at a pretty good clip, too. It pays to remember, however, that a good eye is as important to making a good film as a good home-theater set-up is to enjoying it on—and, arguably, no wildlife filmmaker who ever lived had as good an eye as Frenchman Jean Painlevé. Many of the films on the new three-DVD set Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé (Criterion Collection) were made before the advent of talking pictures, much less digital video, but they remain as inventive and visually captivating as any non-fiction films ever made.

Painlevé, who died in 1989 at age 87, studied biology at the Sorbonne and eventually found his way to filmmaking when the form was still in its infancy. He embarked on a lifelong career (often along with wife/collaborator Genvieve Hamon) to bend the new art form to the uses of science and the edification of viewers. While the second disc of Science Is Fiction features a selection of some of the hundreds of more pragmatic films he shot, e.g. "Experimental Treatment of Hemorrhage in a Dog," the indispensable first disc centers on his "popular films," scientific shorts he shot to be both educational and entertaining. (The original soundtracks for the shorts feature music from composers ranging from Darius Milhaud to Pierre Henry; Science Is Fiction also features an option to view some of the films accompanied by scores written and played live by venerable indie-rock fave Yo La Tengo—yes, you read that right—for its Sounds of Science project.)

Perhaps the most surprising and fascinating aspect of Painlevé's work is that he tended to ignore the usual wildlife-film fodder—big cats, elephants, whales—for the tiny, strange, and often icky. The closest thing the selection of "popular films" comes to so-called charismatic megafauna is the octopi that slither, tussle, and discretely couple for 1967's "The Love Life of the Octopus." More typical are the tiny sea creatures of 1927's "HYAS and STENORHYNCUS," crustaceans that look like wee alien samurai as they scurry and posture in their algae-covered armor, almost abstractly beautiful in silky black and white. For 1933's "The Sea Horse," he successfully anthropomorphizes the tiny fish, the close-up cinematography making you identify with the male sea horse's labor pains. In "The Vampire," he even makes nature seem somewhat sinister, as a vampire bat hobbles around on its ill-designed legs and nips at a captive guinea pig's nose. But what Painlevé almost invariably captures is a bit of wonder in a place one would have never thought to look. In 1972's "ACERA, or the Witches' Dance," he introduces a most unappealing-looking sea snail that suddenly starts flapping its "wings" and rising into a dipping mid-water dance that evokes what can only be characterized as genuine wonder.

If you're looking for something a bit lower on the foodchain, Asylum Home Entertainment has recently delivered an entirely different take on sea life: Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus. After its trailer went viral on the Internet some weeks back, there was some speculation that that's all it was—a fake tease for a film so baldly exploitative that no one would actually make it. But hey, someone went ahead and made Snakes on a Plane, too.

Aging teen sensation Deborah Gibson plays a marine scientist who witnesses the freeing-from-polar-ice of a prehistoric megalodon shark and a prehistoric big-ass octopus. This leads to too few scenes of giant shark/octopus carnage and way too many scenes of Gibson and co-stars Lorenzo Lamas (still rocking the greasy ponytail), Sean Lawlor, and Vic Chao wrangling over what to do about said carnage. Ridiculousness ensues, and honestly the best entertainment to be had here comes from spotting the seams—the bad acting, the worse dialogue, the repeatedly reused sets, the shoddy effects—though director Jack Perez does display some notable filmmaking fundamentals in making the lead-up to the ultimate showdown between fish and cephalopod almost kinda exciting for a minute. Sadly, actual footage of an actual shark battling an actual octopus would have been more exciting, but hey, it's still more fun than Snakes on a Plane.