Saving Atlantis (2019) - A researcher studies coral.
Saving Atlantis (2019) - A researcher studies coral.

Saving Atlantis (2019) Review

Saving Atlantis is a documentary that has all the beauty of a tourism ad for far off tropical places where people go to get away from the mundanity of their everyday lives. But as a film that attempts to raise awareness about a specific and esoteric topic, this documentary falls short of the mark. Instead, Saving Atlantis seems designed for an in-group that is already aware of and interested in the subject matter. For everyone else, the impact of the film never hits home.


Coral reefs around the world are eroding and dying outright. Filmmakers Justin Smith and David Baker have created a film that spans the globe to highlight the destruction of these natural underwater structures. Filming takes place in Australia, the South Pacific, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the Red Sea. In each of these settings, the filmmakers interview various subjects about coral, including educators, researchers, students, and everyday people who are affected by the erosion of these natural growths.

Saving Atlantis (2019) - The beauty of coral.
Saving Atlantis (2019) – The beauty of coral.


Much of the visuals in Saving Atlantis is b-roll footage of the ocean, and it is beautiful to behold. The opening drone shots of the waves crashing on the beach followed by aerial footage of the endless and fathomless ocean presents the grandeur, majesty, and mystery of the water around us all. And when the camera dips below the waterline, the visuals are even more delightful with all manner of colors and life teeming in an alien world.

As beautiful as a lot of the footage is, however, it also feels like cheap padding to extend the film’s runtime. Coral is visually appealing, and the creatures of the sea are interesting to watch, but there’s only so much of that a layman can look at with his or her limited appreciation before the visuals lose their charm. Perhaps if an expert were to explain how one patch of coral was different from another patch audiences had seen a few minutes earlier, then the footage could be meaningful. Without that guidance, a lot of the footage becomes meaningless.

That’s the kind of moral drama that draws people into foreign subjects like this.

Saving Atlantis presents three main reasons for saving coral reefs: They are natural barriers that help lessen the severity of coastal storms, they help local fishing businesses by attracting fish, and they are a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, these causes aren’t compelling to viewers who don’t already have an affinity for coral – like myself. If the consequences for losing coral had been more cataclysmic, then perhaps my attention would have been gripped. Instead, my mind went to work immediately thinking about how bad the consequences would be without coral and if we could get the same benefits of coral by using a substitute. For example, could we build a manmade coral reef to break storms? Could the fishermen attract fish a different way or fish in a different location? How much was coral actually contributing to tourism, and could dead coral be just as much of a draw? Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore these alternatives, nor does it interview experts who could provide figures on the impact of not having coral.

Even though the film doesn’t get into those specifics, it does specifically blame global warming/climate change as the cause. Rising ocean temperatures and water acidification are “bleaching” the coral reefs. To the film’s credit, however, it does present a coral patch that defies their scientific conclusions. The filmmakers even allow a quote from one of the experts, saying, “Everything in our books is wrong.” Unfortunately, that’s the last of this revelation.

Saving Atlantis (2019) - A fisherman relies on coral for his livelihood.
Saving Atlantis (2019) – A fisherman relies on coral for his livelihood.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the documentary is competent and even delightful at times, but it lacks the human connection that newcomers to the subject need to be fully engrossed. While the film does offer a wide range of interview subjects, it would have been better served by focusing on the personal stories. For example, one female researcher is conflicted about being away from her two-year-old son, because “he only gets to grow up once.” But, when she’s underwater, “a lot of that conflict goes away.” That’s the kind of moral drama that draws people into foreign subjects like this. Unfortunately, the film never reaches for those audiences.