So, as you’ve probably heard and read around here on Scienceblogs and elsewhere, filmmaker Randy Olson has made a new film about climate change. It’s billed as a “mockumentary,” and it’s certainly a mock…something. There are several nuggets of good stuff in the movie, but they unfortunately get lost in the distractions. More after the jump…
In the early portion of the movie, Randy’s wealthy gay benefactors, Mitch and Brian (think “Jack” from Will and Grace times two), say they’re upset about global warming–but “they don’t know why they’re upset.” Why didn’t Randy explain to them why they should be upset about global warming? That would have been a great introduction to the movie, because as it stands, the first half of the film is confusing and simply unfunny.
Randy takes Mitch and Brian along to interview a leading climate scientist at the Scripps Institute–and what comes up but a Hummer carrying his two black cameramen: late, lacking camera gear and unapologetic, talking about call girls and saying “what’s up homie.” One of them, Marion, then interrupted the interview, spewing climate denial talking points. What?
Unfortunately this is the bulk of the first half of the picture–promoting stereotypes as above (and, of course, of scientists as well–transitional “humor” segments pound into our skulls how bad at communicating Randy-the-scientist, who’s all about the data and wants to present it via Powerpoint and figures–is). Olson sets up the evidence for global warming, presented by scientists speaking as, well, scientists, interspersed with interviewers with global warming “skeptics” going on about the “religion” of climate change and the persecution of those who contradict the status quo.
Randy then interviews an environmental spokesperson in DC, and laments that she had “no facts and figures.” Another transitional piece with Brian and Mitch then highlights what happens when people just throw out random facts and figures–but this point is lost in the distracting threat on their part to take away Randy’s funding for the picture.
Finally, at this point in the film it starts to get somewhat better. Randy says he’s making this movie because it’s about the truth. He notes that both sides of the “debate” have people looking at same data but interpreting it in different directions–what is the truth, and how does one get to it? Olson notes in a wrapup summary of the scientists’ and deniers’ positions, showing how the “skeptics” disagree on many of the basic points, and only agree in that they don’t agree with the consensus! This is a theme of “how does one determine who to believe” that is present early on, but never really addressed –another lost opportunity.
And just when it starts to improve, Randy brings in his mother and largely goes backward. Olson could have cut out about 95% of her material, but she does have one important point: even people unaware of the debate know that “winter isn’t winter anymore,” and something is “radically wrong.” She also says that she’s confused about what Olson is trying to do in his film–a concern that is sure to be echoed by the audience at this point in the game, halfway through and still meandering without much of a point.
The scene ends by reinforcing the stereotype that scientists aren’t fun, and with Olson’s mom encouraging him to listen to the people he works with. Finally, improvement. The other cameraman, Antoine, meanwhile has been examining the interviews they’ve done to date, and points out to Randy the difference between scientists’ responses when Randy asks the questions versus when Marion does–they answer in plainer language to Marion, and speak to Randy as a fellow scientist. Ding ding ding, and back to familiar “Dodos” material for Olson.
And at last, we get to the meat. Global warming to scientists are facts, records, models–abstract ideas for most people. What Randy needs to do is make the Average Joe understand what impact climate change can have on their everyday life. To do this, they take a trip to New Orleans in order to examine the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Here, it gets good. Olson has learned the lesson of listening to those who he works with, and listens more than he asks “science-y” questions. We hear the stories of those who experienced, first-hand, the devastation of the hurricane, and who still live with the empty houses as day-to-day reminders of what happened there. The interviews are touching and tragic, but I think for most people it will be too little, too late by this point in the movie.
There are a number of good kernels here–how do you get down to the truth of a scientific controversy? How should scientists communicate effectively? How do you know who to trust? Does science need a celebrity spokesperson to get any attention from the general public? And the final part about Katrina (and a few questions from Marion regarding poverty and climate change earlier in the film–but largely glossed over) does put a human toll on climate change that is often lost in these types of science-based discussions. However, many of these points are lost in the kitsch of Olson’s presentation, in the stereotypes he sets up in the beginning of the film, and in the obvious and annoying gimmicks (such as his 83-year-old mother dressed as a rapper bouncing around a club while “everybody in the club getting tipsy” plays in the background).
What’s still left unexplained is the audience for this “mockumentary.” Scientists–to show us again how to communicate? I don’t know that it really fits this bill. The general public, to teach about global warming? It misses this mark as well–I highly doubt the average person is going to wade through the first hour-plus to get to the good stuff at the end. So what we’re left with is a bit of a disjointed film without an obvious audience. I appreciate what Olson’s trying to do–inject a bit of humor into the global warming conversation, I think–but I just don’t think that the film, as presented currently, quite gets there.