Judge Adam Arseneau prefers the Age of Innocence.
Why didn't we save ourselves when we had the chance?
You have to admire the chutzpah of a documentary that comes right out and calls its audience stupid, but Age of Stupid is just that kind of film: a futuristic-styled documentary with a very present message about the state of environmental affairs, like An Inconvenient Truth by way of a TARDIS.
Facts of the Case
The year is 2055, and the Earth has been devastated by global warming and environmental catastrophe. A lone archivist (Pete Postlethwaite) manages a vast storage facility of historical records, frozen animals and artistic treasures; a time capsule of human achievement. He explores video broadcasts and recorded footage from the early twenty-first century, trying to understand how his ancestors could have let things get so bad.
Age of Stupid is not your average documentary. Set in the near future in the year 2055, Earth has been ravaged by global warming and calamity; the survivors of humanity lay decimated by a hellish dystopia of agony and suffering. A lone historical archivist prepares a video journal of his ruminations into past generations—our present—asking the rhetorical question: Why didn't they save themselves when they had the chance? Get it? As narrative devices go, this one is gimmicky, but effective all the same.
Setting aside the science fiction-themed plot devices for a moment, Age of Stupid is a film about the story of six (or so) individuals from varied walks of life and corners of the globe, living out their existence. One man works for big oil in New Orleans and lost all his possessions during Hurricane Katrina, yet still speaks highly about his employer and his industry. A young brother and sister are Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, lamenting the death of their father at the hands of Americans. A British husband and wife live an ecologically sound existence on a farm, trying to spearhead an initiative to set up wind turbines in the picturesque countryside of Bedfordshire, much to the resistance of local town folks. A young woman struggles out an existence in Nigeria in the shadow of a petroleum refinery. A hungry entrepreneurial businessman in India is working hard to get his low-cost budget airline off the ground, a prospective first in India to offer flights cheap enough for actual citizens of India to partake. An elderly French glacier tour guide in Chamonix laments the dropping ice levels in his lifetime and complains about the growing tunnel traffic from the motorway. Age of Stupid weaves an interesting narrative from their tales, a glimpse into their lives viewed through the tinted glass of environmental impact, and the environment's impact on them.
On paper, these stories seem jumbled; a series of loose strings with little in the way of a common narrative. The futuristic archivist (played by a craggy Pete Postlethwaite) weaves the stories together like a composer, evoking a somber song about ecological impact and carbon footprints. Age of Stupid is extremely poignant and clear about one thing: we are destroying the planet. We may not be conscious of it—and indeed, some of the people in the film are doing it with the best and most noble of intentions—but we are killing it all the same. The film requires audiences to place a bit of faith in some of its assumptions to get the full effect, so the less you question the reasoning and methodology, the happier you'll be as an audience member.
Though its message may not always stay quite on mark, Age of Stupid lands one point home easily: our societal dependency on oil will ultimately herald the downfall of our culture. In fact, oil is the main narrative strand that ties all these tales together: the oil needed for airplanes, selling wind farms in alternative to oil, oil as the motivator to invade Iraq, oil companies destroying Nigerian villages, an oil worker ravaged by the fury of nature in New Orleans, oil-powered vehicles ruining the picturesque beauty of the French Alps. Some of these connections are extremely clear and vivid, while others are opaque. All six tales are good in that audiences will want to hear their stories, but not all the stories seem to jive with the underlying narrative of the documentary, like square pegs being crammed into round holes.
Narrative issues aside, there is a lot to admire about this plucky independent documentary. Age of Stupid paid for its production costs through crowd-funding, selling "shares" of the film upfront with returns to be paid upon successful release of the film. The global premiere of the film was broadcast from a solar-powered cinema tent. A coordinated global launch of the film reached over one million viewers, simultaneously broadcast in over 63 countries—a new world record. A groundbreaking screening model allows anyone to purchase a license to hold a screening of the film (no set price for admission) with the screeners themselves keeping the profits. The film even helped set in motion a political campaign to persuade governments and corporations to reduce their collective carbon footprints in 2010 by 10 percent. Age of Stupid even calculates its own carbon footprint and discloses this unpleasantness openly at the end of the film.
Director Franny Armstrong (McLibel) has created a passionate and intriguing film and a frustratingly oblique documentary, simultaneously. The moral of the film is intrinsically correct: climate change, global warming, oil dependencies—all serious issues to be sure, but the methodology and logic used by the film to reach its conclusions is so bewildering and convoluted as to rebuke the very point the film tries to make. Age of Stupid is like a kid who hands in a brilliant solution to a complex math problem on a page full of scribbles, fallacies, and gibberish; a broken equation that somehow, almost by random happenstance, lands exactly the right answer to the problem. How do you grade something like that?
Assembled from a hodgepodge mix of news archival footage, on-location shoots and CGI futuristic landscapes of apocalyptic carnage, the visual quality of the DVD varies by source material. The CGI effects are admittedly crude and low-budget—some border on laughable—but they serve the purpose of the narrative well enough. On-location footage is clear with a natural, balanced color palate and a clean image. Given the relative low-budget production, the filmmakers did an excellent job on this title. Audio comes in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround transfer, which does a good job. The on-location audio recording comes in clean and clear, and rear channels pick up environmental details well enough. The audio isn't a knockout, but a solid score and music from Radiohead and Depeche Mode help somewhat.
Age of Stupid goes for the gusto with special features. Shot over the course of four years, the cast and crew have amassed a massive amount of supplements for this DVD release. The two-disc set contains five hours worth of extras, if you believe the packaging material. Deep breath, here we go: a 50-minute making-of documentary, eight extended interviews, a crew commentary, trailers, ambush footage harassing U.K. ministers, eight deleted scenes, eight short films about climate change, and all manner of supplementary videos are crammed into this package. It is quite comprehensive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Age of Stupid is no dummy, but the convoluted plotlines and gimmicky narration distract needlessly from its premise of ecological change and accountability. I wish Age of Stupid could articulate its point without the use of the omnipresent, futuristic narrator. A slick marketing gimmick to be sure, but it just totally wrecks the subtlety of the film, like a jackhammer in a dentist's office.
The power in a film like Age of Stupid is not in the movie itself, but the conversation and dialogue about environmental issues created in its wake. It's easy to find fault with the methodology of Age of Stupid, but impossible to criticize the heartfelt urgency of its message.
Not perfect, but not guilty.
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