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Case Number 24623

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Surviving Progress

First Run Features // 2011 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // October 6th, 2012

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All Rise...

Judge Mike Rubino is totally against deforesting Amazon.com.

The Charge

"History repeats itself, but each time the price goes up."

Opening Statement

Enjoy your iPhone 5, because we're all doomed.

Facts of the Case

Based on Ronald Wright's book A Short History of Progress, Surviving Progress documents man's exponential, technological advancements over the past three centuries and how they may be leading our species down the road of extinction. The film presents the idea of a "progress trap" (progress for the sake of wanting more), and how this abuse of power, money, and resources may be destroying the planet.

The documentary features interviews by a swarm of experts, including Stephen Hawking, Margaret Atwood, Jane Goodall, Craig Venter, and David Suzuki.

The Evidence

Surviving Progress is a thoroughly depressing film. While most documentaries are fit to focus on one aspect in which humanity is screwing up everything (like the environment, corporate greed, war, Donkey Kong tournaments, etc.), this one hits them all. The result is a movie which has so many cautions, messages, and issues that its central thesis becomes lost and its conclusions muddled.

It's understandable that the film is a little scatterbrained: it's based on a book which was based on a lecture series; it's best suited for a PBS miniseries. Surviving Progress begins by explaining why humans, as a race, desire progress and constantly want more, and then it moves on to the idea of "progress traps." We're doing things because we can. We want more because we're taught that's how we advance. Before you know it, we're in China learning about its pollution and economic booms, on Wall Street discussing deregulation and debt, then we're in Brazil talking about deforestation, and in Washington D.C. mapping the human genome. After a while, all of the talking heads and the flyover footage of cities starts to blend together. The through-line seems to be "We grew too big, too fast, too carelessly" but there's no narrator or anyone to really tie everything together.

Surviving Progress can occasionally be enlightening. Whenever the film engages actual humanity, instead of talking about it in lofty terms, it becomes more interesting. The segment in China, while not really connected to the central point of the movie, is punctuated by an argument uncharacteristic of talking-head documentaries: a local tour guide interrupts his father, a Chinese professor, who starts to talk about the country's pollution. It underscores the country's world-wide image issues while also giving a generally cold film a little bit of human emotion. Later, the film discusses the issue of deforestation in the Amazon. While most people would generally be against such measures (especially after seeing the footage of demolished forests), the villagers in the logging towns are for it; their lives depend on the money brought in from the forest, and to them the deforestation is part of survival. These brief conflicts are worthy of entire documentaries. Here, in a film concerned with gigantic issues, they're merely footnotes.

The big issues like corporate greed, pollution, and genetic manipulation are all relevant and important, but none are given enough explanation. Perhaps worse than that, no solutions are given. The drumbeat that we're doomed isn't met with any optimistic trumpet in the third act. You just end up feeling small and helpless, knowing that you can't change anything except what's immediately around you. Maybe, in a roundabout way, that's the whole point.

The film may be all over the place, but at least it's a really sharp-looking documentary. The interviews are all well done and the fancy aerial, time-lapse photography is dramatic and powerful. The standard definition transfer has crisp contrast and good coloration. The audio mix is solid, with clear interviews and some nice surround effects out in the wild. There's also a healthy amount of special features, including an introduction to the film at a New York screening, a roundtable discussion, and deleted scenes.

Closing Statement

It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to own this film, let alone watch it more than once. But if you've never had interest or time to watch the myriad of special interest documentaries about pollution, greed, the evils of capitalism, genetics, China, the Congo, Stephen Hawking, etc. then you can get the gist of all of them in a brief 86 minutes. Just don't expect a whole lot of answers or optimism.

The Verdict


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Scales of Justice

Video: 89
Audio: 90
Extras: 85
Story: 79
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile

Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English (CC)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Introduction
• Interviews
• Deleted Scenes
• Filmmaker Bios


• IMDb

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