You’re probably wondering what CONSHELF II means, am I right? It’s short for Continental Shelf Station Two, and like its brothers CONSHELF I and the later CONSHELF III, they proved to be a very valuable tool for researching the idea of men living and working under the ocean surface. Six of Cousteau’s trusty and well-trained oceanauts lived in the structure for 30 days, performing all manner of experiments, as well as the precious gathering of specimens for study. The stations were financed partially via grants from the French petrochemical industry, likely with the hopes that the experience gained could help them gain a foothold on undersea deposits. Within a few years of CONSHELF III (1965), Cousteau’s opinions on undersea drilling and such had changed dramatically, and he became the staunch conservationist we all recognize.
Back to talking about the film. While not as flashy as modern HD camera stuff like the really excellent BBC series Planet Earth, the film is very well shot, especially when one takes into account the era and conditions it was filmed in. I don’t know a lick about cinematography myself, but I guarantee that shooting a miniature submarine driving around at a depth of ten meters below the surface of the sea is far from a simple task. Now that I think of it, how on Earth did they manage to film inside the awfully cramped-looking confines of the CONSHELF station itself? Your guess is as good as mine.
Cousteau definitely had a flair for showmanship, and he really lays it on with a trowel in this documentary. His eye for drama meant that sometimes things were a little bit staged. With comedic sequences involving the parrot brought onboard laughing at a crew member's new haircut to overly-dramatic camera shots, all accompanying a voiceover of oceanaut Andre Falco describing his experiences of diving at night, fact and fiction blend together in a way that is actually extremely pleasant.
The one point in which my suspension of disbelief wore thin is a scene at the climax of the film in which the diving saucer, at a depth of 1,000 feet, comes across an undersea lake with a cavern filled with apparently breathable oxygen. While it might be possible, one would think that the amount of pressure at that depth would squash a man, and that even if there was air in the cavern, it probably wouldn’t be breathable. A New York Times review from the time this documentary was released shares my questions, and an apparently infuriated Cousteau refuted such claims.
Sure, there’s that to mull over, but this really is a terrific film. The musical score alone makes it worth watching for for me, full of deep sea horns blasts and creepy images of deep sea predators. The oceanauts all wear really cool silver wetsuits (which obviously photograph very well), which makes them really look the part of astronauts in innerspace. One thing I found absolutely amusing was the amount of smoking that goes on in a deep sea lab in the 60’s. I thought that sort of thing would be a no-no, but Cousteau points out in the opening minutes of the film that tobacco burns twice as fast as normal at their current depth!
When it really comes down to it, I could really care less whether or not anything in this or his other films was faked, as the end result is entertaining, and of course quite dramatic and entertaining. While some of his former associates have claimed it happened often, we can never really know the truth for certain, so it’s probably best to just enjoy the ride for what it is and not pick it apart too much. The CONSHELF experiments did not lead to Cousteau’s hinted at “exploitation of the sea” (which is definitely for the better considering the glut of environmental problems we have today), they do continue to stir the imagination for anyone who has wondered what it must be like to live under the waves.