The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The 11th Hour

Originally posted 9/1/07
Full review behind the jump

The 11th Hour

: Nadia Conners and Lelia Conners Petersen
: Nadia Conners and Lelia Conners Petersen
: Leonardo DiCaprio, Chuck Castleberry, Brian Gerber, Leila Conners Petersen
: narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, full list of featured interviewees available at film’s website

I cannot critique movies based on good intentions, because if I did then
The 11th Hour would be the best picture of the year. I honestly believe that the film’s producers, including the Prius-driving, private-jet-eschewing, carbon-offset purchasing megastar/narrator Leonardo DiCaprio, genuinely seek to improve our relationship with the planet we inhabit and the resources we use to survive on it. This goes too for the dozens of interview subjects; these are PhD’s, Nobel laureates, world leaders, authors and scientists and men of the cloth and they all mean terribly well. They are not just out there weeping over the spotted owl, they are keenly aware that the population of the Earth has doubled in the last 45 years, many of the energy sources we use to support this population are finite, costly, and come with terrible side effects, and if we keep unbalancing Nature we run the ominous risk of Nature re-balancing itself, with us no longer in the picture.

As one of the talking heads says: “
The planet has all the time in the world. We don’t.” Professor Steven Hawking takes time out from cracking the mysteries of the universe to point out the flimsy range of tolerances that we are able to exist in – such-and-such temperatures, such-and-such mixtures of atmospheric gases, such-and-such volume of clean water and available biomass to consume. Cast in those terms (and his famous computer-aided speaking “voice” serves to underline this cold reality), it feels like a thriving human race and virtual extinction are, in planetary terms, only the smallest nudge apart.

There are solutions, of course, but
The 11th Hour seems torn between its desires to both scare the hell out of us and inspire us with the possibilities of a new relationship with our home. Any good preacher will tell you that you talk about Hell first, then salvation, and writer/directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen have eagerly appropriated that lesson. But in striving to do both jobs as thoroughly as their 93-minute running time allows, their film dashes pell-mell around the planet, trying to tie together mercury pollution and cracking ice shelves and childhood asthma and war in the Middle East into a single thesis about, well…I can’t seem to put it in a single sentence. That’s the problem, really.

The film takes on an almost thudding routine, switching from talking head to nature footage back to DiCaprio, whose presence further muddies things. He doesn’t have the credentials of the interviewees, or the meticulously-credible air with which Al Gore plodded through the evidence in An Inconvenient Truth. He is here as a celebrity spokesperson, and our generation has grown plenty weary and suspicious of them. His presence may sell more tickets, but is it going to be someone from that audience segment that really contributes to the solutions this movie is calling for?

They show intermittent miracles-in-progress, but rarely stop to spend any time appreciating them. We glimpse a beautiful office building built with ascending terraces covered with green plants, and half-a-second later it’s gone; we’ll never know if it’s actually under construction, or how its elements might work harmoniously. We spend two seconds in a dance club which is actually powered by the thermal and kinetic energy released by the people dancing within it. Thought-provoking, but what happens when the DJ switches to Kenny G?

Worse still are the images that have no apparent context. We watch animal carcasses being carved up on an assembly line. We’re an omnivorous species and there’s a lot of us that need to be fed – is the film protesting the meat-eating itself, or the cold efficiency with which we acquire it? Is there anything that could actually be done about that? Or is it hoping to simply press one of our visceral sympathy buttons, like that shot of scientists releasing penguins from crates on a beach so they can trundle to the ocean? Why were they in the crates to begin with? What does that have to do with more efficient roofing?

Nature photography is an art form that has quietly become more astonishing in each passing year – one need only look at the recent BBC-produced miniseries Planet Earth to sample the breathtaking imagery you can get with patience and good equipment these days. By contrast, the vistas of The 11th Hour have an off-the-shelf feel. It’s fond of LA’s smoggy skyline, and swooping shots of the rainforest, but they look grainy and de-saturated, and the filmmakers have neither the time nor the poetry to arrange such sights in a way that ever communicates more than – Earth is beautiful, but bad things are happening.

The film’s most effective moments happen when it manages to stick with one topic and develop it for a few minutes. Author and talk radio host Thom Hartmann builds an effective metaphor about how ancient humans sustained their population solely on the energy the sun put out any given year to provide heat and food for crops, which fed animals which we used for meat and skins, etc. Now, he argues, we’ve learned to tap into fossil fuels, which are effectively “ancient sunlight”, unused and stored beneath our surface. What happens to a population of 6 billion that hasn’t developed alternatives when the ancient sunlight, as it inevitably must, run out? That’s the sort of provocative question The 11th Hour should be asking more of.

I love the message of this movie – that Nature has an inspiring system that lets nothing go to waste and makes the most use of the energy given it. This makes it resilient – it can rally back from just about whatever we throw at it and still bring forth marvels. If we could learn such flexibility then our limits as a species would be beyond dreaming. But there are tipping points, massive melting glaciers, trapped pockets of carbon dioxide, that if triggered could re-set Earth’s equilibrium outside our comfort zone, and the contributors to The 11th Hour are concerned that such tipping points don’t always announce themselves until it’s too late. We could learn a lot about the way we build skyscrapers, transport ourselves from place to place, make consumer goods, and anything else that uses energy from the way Nature cycles eternally through construction, re-absorption, and transformation. Like I said, I cannot grade on heart, because these peoples’ is in the right place. They are optimistic, imaginative, sincere. But this does not save the movie they are participating in from a distressing lack of artistry.


  • just saw 11th Hour myself; the "Nature's Operating Instructions" extra feature is especially interesting... apparently there is some amazing technology built into nature, a lot there that we should use as a model for our own technology

    By Anonymous patrick, at 7:44 AM  

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