For a hurricane, Lucy sure is a chatty gal. She's the star of the ambitious documentary Hurricane, which combines technically spectacular photography with cheesy music and questionable voiceover narration. The concept is incredible, following Lucy from her infancy in a Senegalese desert across a chunk of the planet to Louisiana, with destructive stops along the way. The execution, however, is less incredible and often just downright poor, constantly filling the air with human noise from radios and various professionals filling us in on what our eyes have already figured out, that the storm is growing, that it's approaching.
The power here is in the visuals, so why so many aural distractions? Even serene shots of the storm as seen from space are heavily overlaid with wooden conversations from NASA employees surveying the footage. The majesty of Lucy’s power is lost when drowned out by so many voices offering so little. The whole approach has a kitchen sink mentality about it, throwing together every aspect of storm watching imaginable and attending to the victims of several nations at the same time.
It’s a plan that seems better suited for a miniseries or TV special, especially considering that co-director Andy Byatt previously worked on the BBC’s Planet Earth series, a definitive moment in nature television history. Trying to cram so much into a feature that barely spans eighty minutes in length means that nearly everyone is going to be short-changed at one point or another.
That includes Lucy, who still dominates the picture, but has to fight for screentime with a lot of padding that includes shots of the eventually battered beaches and forests prior to Lucy’s arrival and conversations with locals who may have interesting tales to tell about their experiences, but not the time to share them. These little slivers of human stories, while tragic and sad, are never particularly compelling because they're treated with all of the depth and care of a quick fluff piece found on the evening news.
Lucy is the clear star here, but Byatt and his co-director Cyril Barbancon (who doubles as cinematographer) continually insist that they need to show and interview people to strengthen the pic's dramatic backbone even though they can't be bothered to develop these people as more than faces or soundbites.
Thankfully, the human element isn’t always present and when the picture gets more immersively in touch with nature, it works rather well. Shots of animals weathering the storm are comically touching and occasionally even bordering on the absurd. A trio of cows lounging on the front porch of a house now surrounded by water, moat-like, is hilarious and touching and surreal all at once. Capturing the images of these creatures who can’t voice their thoughts on the storm, but only give us plaintive looks, speaks volumes about their experiences.
Other moments are more scary than funny. Barbancon doesn’t shy away from putting his camera in some wildly intense settings, leading to the movie’s best moments as the camera rolls and we bear witness to Lucy’s awesome power. At one point, we stare at an empty intersection as the wind and rain blasts by with such force that it seems as though the pavement might buckle. Shots like this provide such a stunning viewpoint of nature’s wrath that the greatness the movie is reaching for can be temporarily glimpsed.
But then it’s back to all the incessant talking. Lucy’s voiceover script is cribbed from some poems by Victor Hugo, who wrote his dramatic and insightful words about hurricanes before much was known about the specifics of such storms. Some of the lines are fine enough, but the plan to personify Lucy seems detrimental to the experience. The allure of the hurricane lies in its power and very specifically its elemental makeup. Being able to relate to the storm and comprehend its thoughts seems pointless. It doesn’t help that Lucy’s monologues routinely strain for profundity.
All of this culminates with a strangely upbeat finish where a few of the people interviewed, including at least one who comes completely out of nowhere, all wax philosophically about the importance of hurricanes and how sweet it is to experience a natural disaster. I’m guessing those cows on the porch feel somewhat less enthused. Considering how hard the movie works to show us the horrors of the storm, it’s a little odd to see Byatt and Barbancon try to magically pull a happy ending out of their collective hat. The use of human interviewees never seems more miscalculated than in these final minutes.
For all of its flaws, Hurricane still has its striking visuals to fall back on. There’s likely no better way to communicate the power of such a storm and the breadth of its destruction than by placing your camera right in the midst of said storm and destruction. Barbancon’s efforts to offer many different viewpoints are appreciated, especially when we find ourselves underwater for a long shot that has us stare up at the surface as waves crash so explosively it’s as though bombs are being detonated out of view.
It’s important to acknowledge the courageous complexity of such setups and the result is very impressive. But for all that’s accomplished here, Hurricane never feels like as artistic an endeavour as the concept suggests it should or at least could be. It’s muddled and hokey and structurally uninspired, gutsy but cutesy. Lucy sure loves to talk and clearly Byatt and Barbancon are more than eager to listen, but when it comes to a devastating storm, actions speak louder than words.