Review - My Octopus Teacher (A Netflix Original Documentary)

A South African filmmaker named Craig Foster was suffering from burnout when he returned to the "Cape of Storms". He had a childhood home there, and talks about what it was like to "literally live in the force of that giant Atlantic Ocean". He particularly loved diving in the kelp forest. He starts exploring it again and one day observes a strange shape on the sea floor. The viewers get to see it too - it looks like a Frankenstein creation of sorts, a collection of different shells and sea life held together by an unseen center. Foster notices that even the fish seem confused by it. Suddenly it is bursts apart and Foster spies the titular octopus zipping away from the debris. He's immediately enchanted - it's clear to him that he's seen something special, and gets the idea to come back and observe the octopus every day. And so the documentary begins, starting with "Day 1". Over the course of about a year Foster dives daily, taking us along for the swim as he grows more and more amazed.

Thoughts from your Pop Culture Concierge

The Little Mermaid is my favorite Disney movie. Up until now, every time I watched it I would think something along the lines of "If only it was really this beautiful under the sea." After watching My Octopus Teacher, I now realize that Disney undershot - by a wide margin. What a gift it is to see how real life can far surpass the imagination of even Disney's world-class animators. Give yourself a well-deserved break and enjoy this stunning story of patience, curiosity, the magnificence of nature and unconventional friendship.

Octopi* Are Amazing

I can acknowledge that before watching this film I clearly knew nothing about octopi. But now I'm left with the same awe and admiration Foster shares. The movie does a great job of portraying the towering intelligence of the octopus he's following. As Foster goes back day after day, it's clear the octopus remembers him - because around day 26 she stops retreating whenever he is near and starts getting close enough to explore this strange creature from above. I also had no idea of the variety of camouflage the octopus has in its repertoire. Whether she's hiding from Foster or Pyjama Sharks, she ingeniously uses her surroundings to almost disappear, only noticeable to the careful viewer when she opens one of her eyes. Watching her melt away into the sea life around her is astonishing. We even get to see a few moments where she appears to be playing - it's as startling as it is delightful. There's so much intrigue packed into this squishy creature that seems to be about the size of a forearm.

*Merriam-Webster has a kind of hilarious entry trying to explain the plural of octopus. One of the images is tagged "Rule of Thumb: if English gets the opportunity to trip you up, it will."

You'll Be Transported By the Photography

At one point Foster says "you naturally just get more relaxed in the water" - and that's true even if you're just watching. There are so many gobsmacking shots in the film - whether looking down Foster, a tiny speck floating on the surface of a vast ocean, or deep underwater where there is an absolute riot of color and life and wonder. It is no small thing to make the South African seascape look kind of boring in comparison of what's down below. I'm still not over what they were able to capture with their underwater cameras. The amount of detail visible, for example, the first time Foster and the octopus make actual contact, brings you closer to being a part of the moment yourself than would ever have seemed possible. Some of what we get to see(a bloom of jellyfish, water lapping over the top of the kelp forest, the completely unfurled octopus gliding over a bed of sea urchin) is almost impossibly beautiful. Stills could be hung in a museum with the Monets and the Van Goghs.

A Few Tense Moments, But Mostly a Meditative Sound Bath

This is a nature documentary, and so there are a few scenes portraying predator and prey. By this point both Foster and the viewer are pretty attached to this particular octopus, which made for some tense moments that can be upsetting. But other than that, both the score and narration set you up for a contemplative, meditative experience. Foster himself admits that he became somewhat obsessed with this octopus, but his interviews and voiceover rarely change in tenor and tone. His words are careful and his delivery is gentle as he describes the time he spent following this life underwater. The music often has a dreamy quality that creates a sort of sound bath, almost making up for the fact that you can't be there yourself.

There's also so much visual storytelling here, I put my phone away while I was watching because I didn't want to miss anything on the screen. It's a great reminder that mono-tasking is so much better for your stress levels than multi-tasking. I could swear that during parts of the viewing my heart rate was notably slower.

And that's no small thing during a stressful month in a stressful year. Beyond everything, this is a story of how restorative nature can be when everything around us gets to be too much. This experience was clearly medicinal for Foster, and in addition to inspiring this movie, it led him to set up The Sea Change Project to protect the Great African Sea Forest. He has been healed and wants to help heal in return.

My Octopus Teacher

One Hour, 25 Minutes