Judge Daryl Loomis wants to be plastic too, less like me and more like you.
You'll never dare to drink from a plastic bottle again.
In 1907, Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic polymer in what would later be termed plastics. These materials, now known by many names, have needed only a hundred years to become ubiquitous, touching (or invading, depending on your point of view) the lives of people the world over and the planet itself. Formed of oil and other substances, these synthetic materials break down extremely slowly, piling into mountains of landfills. When it finally does begin to degrade, the chemicals seep into the ground and our water table, finally making their way into our bodies. That sounds scary, but the story isn't completely told. Director Werner Boote explores the unanswered questions about plastic in his documentary, Plastic Planet.
Boote became enthralled by plastic because of his grandfather, who worked at a manufacturing plant. Grandpa would bring home brightly colored objects for his tiny grandson, who fell in love with the look, the smell, and even the taste of the stuff. It wasn't until later that he started to see a problem with it when, as he grew, he started to see it everywhere, taking an increasingly important role in manufacturing until, finally, our homes have become filled with it. With nostalgia in hand, but a real need to get some answers about this brightly-colored menace, Boote sets off across the globe, speaking with experts, plastics executives, and real people, hoping to make sense of it all.
In part, he succeeds in his goal. Plastic is literally everywhere, so commonplace that we've stopped noticing it. Rather than natural materials, we expect that our goods will be made from it; the thought of a wooden iPod is ridiculous. When he's in this mode, talking with experts about the science of plastic and its ubiquity, the film is great. The scientists are well-informed on their subject and Boote asks smart questions. Animation brings to life the ideas about the chemicals that have seeped into our bloodstreams, and uses it to make a compelling case that problems like increasing infertility stem from its effect on our bodies. I know more about the industry now than I ever have and I appreciate Boote's efforts on this front.
The problems come in the other side of the film, where Boote resorts to gimmickry to make his points. Regardless of how I feel as a leftist about environmental issues and the role of corporation in the earth's corruption, Michael Moore-style tactics are unwelcome here. At one point, Boote books an appointment with the head of a major plastics firm and gets a pretty fair interview with a guy who clearly wants to protect his industry. Not getting the answers he wanted, he later accosts the man at a convention, embarrassing him in front of the cameras and his colleagues. Does he look like a corporate pig? Sure, but does Boote come off like a jackass bully? Even more so. In another instance, he gets access to a Chinese manufacturing plant, trying to discover the deeply kept secret proprietary formulas of the company. He gets pretty far with his stunt, but in doing so, coerces and confuses his young Chinese escort into taking him into places that are strictly out of bounds. I would be shocked if she didn't lose her job over this, and all we get out of it are the incredibly obvious points that there are weird chemicals in plastic and companies want to keep their secrets secret. Ultimately, these tactics kill a documentary for me. Even if he's right, his method is wrong.
First Run Features avoids irony by packaging Plastic Planet in a cardboard slimcase. Though they do get damaged easily, I like both the look and the space saving features of this case, and wish it was the industry standard. In any case, the film looks good on this disc, which is still plastic, of course. The bright colors of the dyed material pop off the screen and the location footage all looks very good. The sound is fine, but nothing great. There's some inconsistency, but that has more to do with filming across the globe than anything. For extras, we have four deleted scenes, all of which are worth watching, and various DVD-ROM features, including additional interviews, a press kit, and more information about plastics. Overall, a fine, reasonably environmentally friendly package.
Plastic Planet presents an interesting subject, but in a meandering and inconsistent way. Mixing actual evidence with anecdotal interviews and animation is fine, but if there has to be gotcha moments, there also has to be a very strong argument. Werner Boote may have mixed feelings about our plastic world, but his film is wishy-washy as a result. Still, there's more than enough valuable info here to warrant a recommendation.
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