Review: “My Octopus Teacher” (Netflix)

Filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster has spent years documenting some of the planet’s most dangerous animals – which took its toil on his family life. Burned out and depressed, he needed to reconnect and recharge. So he went back to his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa and, with a friend, Roger Horrocks (a cameraman from “Blue Planet 2”) began free diving into the cold water and gorgeous kelp forests off the coast, one of the more predator-dense forests one could imagine.

That’s where he sees what looks like a round pile of junk, shells mostly, that turns out to be a small octopus camouflaging itself from this hulking human floating above. The chance meeting would lead to a documentary project of over 3,000 hours of footage and a story centered on Foster’s moving personal relationship with the octopus. “My Octopus Teacher” provides a memorable account of one man’s interaction with animal intelligence, filled with gorgeous undersea moments.

Like a more sedate Steve Irwin, Foster is a curious guy who simply loves spending time observing the octopus in her natural habitat as she hunts for food and evades predators such as the pyjama shark. The evolution of this smart cephalopod is incredible, the ability to transform itself to evade predators. However its life is short, only around a year; the strategy, Foster points out, seems to be “live fast and die young” (sadly, just after giving birth it’s time to go). But it allows him to watch the octopus for its entire life, one day at a time.

Without parents around as guides, the octopus must learn to survive on its own and quickly. The filmmakers’ enthusiasm and affection is infectious, yet even when things turn dangerous for the invertebrate, Foster never intervenes, not wanting to upset the natural balance of things. One tender moment of the octopus finally trusting Foster and gently latching onto his hand as he emerges for air is one of the sweetest things you’ll see on Netflix, maybe television in general, this year.

At times, Foster’s emotional narrative gets a little carried away in terms of seeing parallels between his life and the octopus – but he’s trying to tell a relatable story for a larger general audience, and that’s not the real draw here. Rather the reason to watch is the sustained bird’s eye view of this amazing creature, with bonus points for Foster’s impressive lung power that keeps him underwater for long stretches.

And let’s not forget the overall lesson Foster receives from this fascinating octopus: The importance for mankind of co-existing with nature, rather than continuing as a destructive force killing off all species and poisoning the earth.

Foster and friends have since founded the nonprofit Sea Change Project dedicated to preserving the same kelp forests. Oh, and if you’re worried this wonderful little nature documentary will make you rethink your love of calamari – remember those are a type of squid, not octopus. Not quite the same thing.


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