The Reeler


August 17, 2007

The 11th Hour

If documentary is the new disaster film, Leo's baby is B-movie material

It is tempting, in a summer filled with bland franchise flicks that make only half-assed attempts at political relevancy (The Bourne Ultimatum) or are just half-assed in general (Pirates III), to call the current flurry of documentaries (No End in Sight, Manda Bala, The Devil Came on Horseback) the new disaster films. Riveting, emotionally engaged, expertly crafted, tapping into our greatest collective anxieties without the safety net of suspension of disbelief, highly recommendable -- they lack only the popcorn factor; your stomach is more likely to be turned than primed for action.

A subset of these new disaster films is what The Reeler has called the “ecocatastromentary”; films like Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car?, which combine hard science, examinations of public policy, portraits of socio-economical trends and a few this-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house chills to magnetic effect and decent box office. This summer’s highest profile ecocatastromentary is The 11th Hour, and despite an impressive array of talking heads and Leonardo DiCaprio (in his best Hemingway moustache and a series of crisp button-downs), as a disaster film in this cracking new mold, it’s strictly B-movie material.

Opening with a Clockwork Orange-ish assemblage of ghastly and/or vivid imagery (a turtle swimming, chaos in the streets, a fetus) set to droning, this-is-serious-so-look-sharp music, directors Leila Connors Petersen and Nadia Connors set the tone of undefined alarm right out of the gate. The Earth will live on, we are told by a nameless talking head, it’s human beings who are in trouble. Well! Tell me more... I guess. Eventually the crew of orators, including David Suzuki, Wangari Maathai, Stephen Hawking, Oprah day players like Andrew Weil and freaking Mikhail Gorbachev are identified, although it is sometimes unclear why, say, an architect, or a clothing designer have been selected as experts on the subject of our imminent self-destruction. With 54 subjects, it becomes hard to lend each one the appropriate degree of credence, and the boxed-in, blue matted backdrops they all speak from seem straight out of the set of Tony Robbins’ last infomercial.

Even from the depths of the most remedial documentary style and scattered emotional and topical focus, however, come some wicked-inconvenient truths. Suzuki in particular drops some casual science -- fun fact: 99.9999 percent of every species that has ever existed on Earth is now extinct. That’s not to give ourselves a pass on the bald eagle or the dodo, but to underline the idea that we are currently in the throes of an extinction crisis, and our big brains have led us to the first period in human history when we have the capacity to blow it on a global scale. Late to the festivities, we have proven to be the worst kind of party guest: unruly, greedy, arrogant, stinking up the joint with toxic emissions and fixing to ralph bile and bio-hazards all over the paper-white lilies.

Unfortunately all of the dramatic proclamations and even the stone cold science lack a guiding context -- aside from the rather cop-out-ish, “It’s the 11th hour, bitches!” And montages similar to the opening one are almost comically overloaded with non sequitur imagery (a pen meeting paper, a hand poised to do... something, a dude on a boat) that end up undermining various points with edit-happy flash tactics. The similarly dourly titled No End in Sight is ample reminder that you don’t need to overdo it when the facts are this intense. Even our handsome host pops up from time to time in what begin to feel like “Where’s Leo?” interludes; the backdrop is always different, but never identified. It's the King of the World, earnestly stranded in a wheat field or a mountain range, for no particular reason.

These may sound like minor quibbles, but taken together they indicate a noble and well-intended film that suffers acutely from a lack of vision and amateurish production. Seeming to cater stylistically to the ADD generation even as it tackles a subject of enormous scope, The 11th Hour doesn’t quite get the job done. The directors would have you run screaming from the theater (and straight for a senator’s office/hybrid dealer/vegan detox), but will be lucky to elicit even the softest sigh as the lights come up.

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