Movie Review: “Underwater Dreams” Is Captivating & Inspirational


Review by James McDonald

“Underwater Dreams, narrated by Michael Peña, chronicles the story of how the sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants learned how to build underwater robots. And go up against MIT in the process.

“Underwater Dreams” is that rare film that keeps your total attention for its entire duration and also encourages you and inspires you to want to do better with your life. The documentary follows four young Hispanic students from Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, Arizona, a very economically depressed area full of unemployment, drug use, gangs and crime. Two of the institution’s teachers decided, out of the blue, to enter their school into a refined underwater robotics competition sponsored by NASA and the Office of Naval Research, among others.

Only four students signed up but together, with sheer determination and very little money, they built an underwater robot using some loaned electronics, PVC piping and duct tape. They made their way to Santa Barbara in 2004 and found themselves competing with influential academic establishments such as Cape Fear Community College, Lake Superior State University and MIT. During the event, the team endured hiccups and setbacks galore but they persevered and by the end of the competition, they beat all the odds and won.

The movie integrates actual footage from the finals and when they announce them as winners, you actually find yourself cheering for the underdogs. The film tells this story in retrospect but it also interviews the students who were competing against them from MIT and what their thoughts and memories were of the overall event and what they were feeling at the time but then the movie veers off in another direction altogether. You find out that all four of the Hispanic men who were attending Carl Hayden Community High School, were undocumented immigrants.

The film changes gears and we begin to find out about each of the young men and their families and their struggles to stay in the U.S. Many of these men came to America when they were just infants and when Arizona passed a law that prohibited tuition aid to all undocumented immigrants, many of them had to drop out of school to try and find work. One of them even willingly turned himself into Immigration Services and was promptly deported but was then able to turn around and legally re-apply for citizenship.

Denied twice, an activist heard his plight and contacted her local congressman and he took it to congress and showed them his achievements, his most notable being the big win at the robotics competition and because of this, and what he could contribute to America, he was granted U.S. citizenship. The first thing he did once he became a citizen was to join the army. What I loved about this movie, was that it didn’t just concentrate on the competition win but also the young men’s backgrounds and the impossible obstacles they and their families had to overcome just to survive.

As you become more aware of the good people they are and their future goals and achievements, it makes you care about their plight even more. “Underwater Dreams” introduced me to a group of people who achieved the impossible by beating any and all odds to come out on top. Now THAT is the American dream.

Opens in NY and LA on July 11th

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James McDonald
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