Monday, September 21, 2009

Apocalypse 2055: 'The Age of Stupid'


It’s the year 2055. London is underwater. Las Vegas is underground. Sydney Harbor is in flames and the Taj Mahal is a ruin. About 800 kilometers north of Norway, a global archivist with the totality of the world’s information at his disposal reviews videos and news clips from 2008 and prepares a digital message in a bottle, a message for … someone, dire and painful but to the point: “We could have saved ourselves, but we didn’t.”

This grim forecast comes at the opening of a new and startlingly effective film on the perils of climate change and the consumerist roots of a coming ecological disaster — a motion picture whose groundbreaking world premiere tonight, in New York and Seattle, and on 440 screens in 63 countries, was its own environmental impact statement.

“The Age of Stupid” is a curious hybrid: part documentary, part feature film, part grassroots collective enterprise. But the picture arrives with smart timing: It precedes by one day a planned meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to begin taking the next step in fashioning a new global environmental agreement — the successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

It precedes by less than three months the United Nations Climate Change Conference, slated for Copenhagen in December.

And it precedes by six years the redline date — 2015 — when carbon emissions and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must, according to scientists, begin to decline in order to prevent a global extinction-level event.

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Director Franny Armstrong (who helmed the 2005 documentary “McLibel”) was both smart and clever. The young director, whose passion and nervous energy were evident at the premiere pre-screening and post-screening events, wisely made this film a personable, accessible experience with a look into the lives of people around the world affected by the prospect of climate change — their roles in preventing it, creating it, surviving it or escaping it.

A former Shell engineer whose life was turned upside down by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. A wind-turbine developer in Cornwall, England, gamely trying to buck the headwinds of a local population dead-set against wind machines blocking their view. A woman in Nigeria enduring a hardscrabble existence and wishing for more, despite living in a country that is a major oil producer. A wealthy, ruthlessly ambitious Indian entrepreneur launching a new airline.

All are part of the global drama Armstrong explains with wit, clarity and insight.



Armstrong was clever as well. Wise to the ways of Hollywood whether she’s been there or not, Armstrong called on high-tech science fiction visual effects to help tell the story. And not a little Hollywood star power: the archivist is played by Pete Postlethwaite (“The Usual Suspects,” “In the Name of the Father”), the archive-outpost’s lone occupant and, for all we know, the last man alive on Earth.

But Postlethwaite’s presence is at the service of documentary content. “The Age of Stupid” recalls “An Inconvenient Truth” in the urgency of its environmental message (but without “Truth’s” whiteboard, wonkish didactics) and it has some whimsical, wiseass touches not unlike those found in the documentaries of Michael Moore (an obvious Armstrong inspiration).

But Armstrong brings her own narrative drive to this film, and an insight that bears further exploration. By expressing the desires of some of her subjects — the Nigerian woman and the Indian entrepreneur in particular — she reveals the pervasiveness of the single most corrosive factor driving climate change:

It’s not government policy, it’s not necessarily even rapacious corporations. Armstrong compellingly makes the case that the disease of global consumerism, the allure of the material may be the prime engine for looming environmental catastrophe — one that it’s still not too late to prevent.

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The world premiere in New York — the film debuted in the UK some months ago, the film opens globally on Tuesday — took pains to be as close to a carbon-neutral event as possible. Guests were greeted by a green carpet made of enviro-friendly materials; Moby performed a pre-show concert, with electricity provided by humans (people pedaling bikes connected to a generator). Gideon Yago of MTV, the premiere’s demographically correct emcee, said that even the crudités were organic.

Perhaps all of that was a bit much. But the film’s the thing, and “The Age of Stupid” sends the right signal at the right time. The film’s environmental-populist spirit extends to the way it was bankrolled.

“The Age of Stupid” was “crowd-funded” by 220 people who contributed between $813 and just under $57,000 to get the three-year project off the ground. They’ll get a corresponding share of any profits realized. A film that makes some compelling points about the environment is its own best advertisement for the future of independent cinema.

One of the most important points of the evening wasn’t made in the film; it was during the post-screening comments. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General, called climate change “an all-encompassing threat … perhaps the biggest threat to our world today.”

“Good leaders make good followers,” Annan said tonight, in a clear shot at the various heads of state who’ll gather hours from now at the United Nations to begin to decide the fate of the environment as surely as the Allied powers gathered in 1945 to decide the shape of the postwar world.

Those leaders will ultimately be moved to act by the people they lead. And that means all of us breathing on this lonely, beautiful planet. “The Age of Stupid” isn’t so much a call to arms as it is a call to action and common sense. It’s a call we must answer.
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Image credits: Stills from “The Age of Stupid” © 2009 Spanner Films and Passion Pictures.

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