Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, by Randy Olson

The forthcoming Sizzle, Randy Olson's follow-up to the well-received A Flock of Dodos, is a movie that's trying to do three things at the same time: 1) provide some information about global warming, 2) make a point about how scientific information is presented to the public, and 3) experiment with new ways of presenting scientific information to the public. As often happens with movies that are trying to do multiple things, it's not entirely successful at any of them, but it's a worthy attempt.

The film plays as basically a cross between An Inconvenient Truth and a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Olson stars as a hapless filmmaker-- we'll call him Hapless Randy to distinguish the character from the director-- who wants to make a serious film about global warming, interviewing the leading scientists in the field. His attempts to find backers for the film fail, though, and he ends up working for a couple of broad gay stereotypes who are "really upset about global warming, but we don't know why we're upset." They saddle him with a gangsta film crew, one of who is an active global warming denier, and hijinks ensue.

I'm not entirely sure who the intended audience for this is, largely because I'm not sure who the intended audience for documentary films in general is. I fear that it may be too quirky to appeal to any broad audience, which is a pity, because it has some good bits.

The film really pivots on a scene about two-thirds of the way through, when Antoine the sound guy sits Hapless Randy down and explains what's really going on. Hapless Randy has been intent on making a Serious Film throughout, and focused on getting very dry and respectable interviews with leading figures in the global warming debate. He even wants to include PowerPoints a la Al Gore, with predictably disastrous results.

As Antoine explains, though, whenever Marion the denialist cameraman interrupts, the tone changes. The scientists respond to Hapless Randy's serious questions with very stiff and well-rehearsed answers, but when Marion knocks them off script, their answers are much more natural sounding. One woman from the Natural Resources Defense Council even gets in a very sharp dig about Hurricane Katrina. As Antoine notes, they sound like real people, and that footage is much better than the dry, serious stuff that Hapless Randy prefers.

This leads to a much better interview with Naomi Oreskes, and a trip to New Orleans in the last reel, which sort of takes the film off in a different direction (at least in the screener DVD I got-- I hear that they're still re-editing, so there may be a better flow by the time they have a finished product). It's really the core of the movie's message, though (and redeems the stereotyping of the film crew somewhat-- the gay financial backers, alas, mince and prance to the very end).

Olson's point about the state of science communication is a good one-- we do a lousy job informing the public about critical scientific issues, in part because the standard methods used to present that information just don't work very well. The formal talking-head presentation that's favored by most documentary filmmakers and science tv programs can make even really dynamic people seem amazingly stiff-- NOVA's Absolute Zero program was very good, but even there, it felt like Eric Cornell was on a leash-- I've seen him give public talks, and he's usually a lot livelier.

The problem is, I'm not sure that the right solution is to go the Sasha Baron Cohen route and start ambushing scientists with offbeat questions from goofy characters. Olson does get some good footage that way, but I suspect he had to cull through a lot of baffled incomprehension to find those moments.

He deserves credit for trying to shake things up, though. It may not be the right way to go for conveying scientific information-- the film does a better job with the other two goals, on the whole-- but we're not going to find the right way to do things by making tiny little tweaks to the standard boring format. He may be right that the only way to go is to blow the whole thing up and start over.

(The New Orleans material in the last reel is probably a better way to go than the An Inconvenient Guffman stuff in the earlier portions of the movie. In the screener DVD version, though, it doesn't feel as well integrated with the scientific material as it ought to. That might be fixed in the editing room, though.)

I wouldn't call the film a smashing success, but it's an interesting attempt to find a different way to do things. There are some parts that fall flat-- the whole subplot with the gay backers and their attempt to find a celebrity to narrate is just kind of creepy. It also could've used some clearer indication that the non-interview bits were staged-- Kate didn't know going in that those bits were fake, and was confused and bothered for the first half of the movie. And I would've liked to see more of the film-within-a-film that came out of Antoine's conversation with Hapless Randy.

But if nothing else, Olson deserves a good deal of credit for trying to shake things up. This might not be the exact right approach to finding a new filmic language for science communication, but it's at least an attempt at something new.

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To be precise, I was confused and bothered, and then I was seriously annoyed when Chad told me that those bits were mockumentary, meaning that the movie had made a DELIBERATE CHOICE to portray gay and black people as really stupid in offensively-stereotypical ways. To the point that, at 40 minutes in, I gave up on it: if I'd been in the theater, I would quite seriously have walked out.

(As it is, I was in the only place in the house where I could comfortably do what I was working on, so I put on headphones.)


did you stop to think that maybe Olsen has made a deliberate attempt to deliberately portray movie types in offensively-stereotypical ways? Or are you just one of those unthinkingly shallow people who judges everyone by their sexual orientation and the colour of their skin?

Just a thought.


Adam, I have literally no idea what you are asking me, except that you're doing it in a sufficiently belligerent way that I have no reason to believe that you're actually interested in having a discussion, so don't bother clarifying.

Adam (to Kate)did you stop to think that maybe Olsen has made a deliberate attempt to deliberately portray movie types in offensively-stereotypical ways? Or are you just one of those unthinkingly shallow people who judges everyone by their sexual orientation and the colour of their skin?

Oh, this is rich...

I should note that I shared some of Kate's concerns regarding the very broad sterotyping of the gay producers and the African-American film crew, particularly in the first half of the movie. The film guys came out on top in the end, when Antoine turns out to be the most sensible person in the entire movie, but the shallow, celebrity-obsessed, swishy producers never stopped creeping me out.

Also, let this serve as an official warning: I will disemvowel or delete comments that I think are insufficiently civil. Adam's comment walks right up to the line, and I will not look kindly on further pursuit of this line of questioning without some moderation in the unduly combative tone.