Environmental doom n’ gloom has become so pervasive that, in the past six months, I’ve started turning off the radio and flipping past stories in National Geographic whenever dying fish stocks or the dissolving Arctic crop up. It’s for this reason I still haven’t seen An Inconvenient Truth or Manufactured Landscapes (the latter of which looks like a cinematographic smorgasbord and beckons with its streamlined industrial visuals). Even Baraka messed me up. So when Dustin asked me to review The 11th Hour, I did so against every screaming instinct in my body — out of professionalism, I tell you, and the Pajiba Way. But as I marched to the theater with my flashlight and notepad, this ostrich couldn’t help regretting the nice little hidey-hole she’d abandoned out of service to her fellow cinemaphiles. Fortunately for the truly traumatized, The 11th Hour concludes with a merry-merry-love-love look at all of the wasteless resources and clean, green technology waiting in the wings once New Thought™ takes hold and mobilizes governments and citizens to revolutionize industry as we know it.
Sorry, I don’t mean to sound snide. I’m on board with the science, always have been, and couldn’t agree more with the filmmakers’ alarum. I’m just overwhelmed. The 11th Hour, rather than tell us anything new, or present information to us in an original way, combines everything they’ve been throwing at us for years — the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the virulence of corporate and consumer greed, the rising global thermometer, the population explosion — into one big red ball of fiery admonition. Simply put, it’s a summary, a succinct gathering-up and dots-connecting of the environmental crisis, how we got here, and what we can do about it, presented to us with loads of relatable context (e.g. the average twelve-year-old can identify hundreds of corporate logos but less than five native plant species in his own backyard; when JFK was alive, there were only 3 billion people on the planet, etc.). This summary is packaged in the format Errol Morris popularized with his (far, far superior) documentaries: a succession of direct camera addresses by the talking-head interviewees, intercut with spinning, epic object-vistas laden with hyper-sound. There isn’t a single innovative thing about the film cinematically or in terms of content (watch Discovery Channel for a week and you’ll get the same information in a more piecemeal fashion). But if you want to get your hands on an up-to-date edition of Dying Planets For Dummies, to try to convince your Creationist neighbors with His and Her SUVs, or your best friend the belligerent conspiracy theorist, The 11th Hour is the tool for you. (We welcome the inevitable it’s-all-sham-science comments in the space provided for your convenience, below.)
The film’s roster of experts is impressive. Directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen have cobbled together a mind-boggling number of environmental scientists, biologists, oceanographers, anthropologists, cultural critics and political analysts from the best-respected research organizations around the world. They’ve also thrown in a few spiritual leaders, and reformed corporate offenders like Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc. (the world’s largest maker of sustainable modular carpeting) who brought his message of green manufacturing to 2003’s The Corporation. Everything is warmly legitimatized by Stephen Hawking, David Suzuki and Wangari Maathai — and made somewhat curious thanks to the participation of both Mikhail Gorbachev and James Woolsey, a former Director of the CIA, who are now batting for the same team. George W. Bush is paraded out via newsreel, demonstrating how even the traditional Fat-Cat devil’s advocate now accepts that oily humans have messed things up in whole new ways. This morass of expertise coheres passably in the hands of producer Leonardo DiCaprio, who emcees the show from a modest corner, giving the main of the room over to researchers, forecasters and technological optimists. (We welcome further predictable outcry in the comments section about celebrities and their political hobby-horses).
The movie’s as manipulative as they come, of course, with its opening sequence of toxic pits and cadaverous children; all films — all art forms — are so, by their very nature, but The 11th Hour goes to the outer reaches of audience domineering, rhythmically thumping its cudgel into its meaty palm. The film is filled with desperate pleas to save our only home, to cure a planet which has begun to behave like an infected organism, to reverse the damage inflicted on our inestimable web of life. As the movie progresses, we understand that these calls aren’t so much for earth’s own sake but for the sake of civilization and the human species which is eating itself alive (I kept waiting for them to trot out Ronald Wright to talk about Easter Island, but the opportunity somehow sailed the producers by).
The 11th Hour is, ultimately, a film about systems: environmental, political, biological and economical, and it does a fine (if superficial) job of demonstrating how human nature and our Age of Reason ideal of progress are woven into the fabric of mass manufacturing and modern lifestyle. As an academic, I always appreciate an attempt to step back and give an interconnective, bird’s-eye view of a problem, lifted out of the simplicity of one narrow field of reference (which is what critical thinking is all about). It’s a shame The 11th Hour wastes, in a sense, its own intellectual resources by presenting its data in a way sure to turn off the very people it wants so earnestly to convince — it will set the Limbaugh ditto-heads a-laughing. Rather than operating as a wake-up call, the film is a hackneyed, maudlin, uninspired look at the science and the undeniable solipsism of the human condition, with its paradigm-shifting agenda in no way concealed. But then again — tailor-made as it seems to be for the classroom set — as far as agenda-pushing goes, we could do worse than to feed The 11th Hour to the rising generation; we can lose nothing by trying to brain-shift them into admiring solutions with solid economic and philanthropic potential. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on September 6, 2007.)