Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sizzle, the review

I’ve watched an advance copy of Randy Olson’s “global warming comedy” Sizzle and, like many other bloggers, I’m posting a review today. It’s an unusual movie. It’s partly a mockumentary in which we watch biologist-turned-filmmaker Olson (I reviewed his movie Flock of Dodos and have met him a few times since then) getting saddled with a wacky film crew as he sets out to make a global warming documentary featuring lots of interviews with scientists and reams of PowerPoint data.

There are some funny mockumentary moments, including a look at what one producer says is a statue of Charles Darwin, and a dream scene involving a polar bear. Randy acts as the straight man, an uptight scientist who is clueless about how to communicate with a broad audience; in reality, he’s built a career lampooning scientists for being like that.

Interspersed with the mockumentary are actual interviews with scientists, including both some who are alarmed by global warming and others skeptical of such alarm. The interviewees field with good humor questions from the (ersatz) cameraman, as well as from Randy. Randy complains that the cameraman has ruined his interviews. In fact, based on what’s shown, nothing particularly striking emerges from the interviews. A couple of times, as the crew drives away from meetings, Randy says that one or another skeptic was “completely wrong” or some such, but he never says much about why.

Then, at the suggestion of one scientist, Randy and a crew member visit New Orleans and see the agonizingly slow pace of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The point is supposed to be that we can expect much more of this sort of thing if global warming proceeds apace. (Randy notes that “the jury is still out” on whether the warming will intensify hurricanes, but says it’s widely agreed that warming will cause more disasters in general.) In any event, he’s putatively learned that you need to show how things affect real people and to speak in ways people can understand, rather than just boring them with data.

But does the Katrina aftermath tell us we should put more effort into preventing global warming? Or does it suggest resources should go into adapting to the effects of climate change? Indeed, one could look at New Orleans and say this is the sort of immediate problem that should draw more attention instead of a long-term problem like climate change. Randy notes briefly the idea that a wealthy society will be better able to deal with environmental impacts than a poor one, but seems to agree with one green activist that New Orleans, located in a wealthy nation, counters this notion. I’m not sure the footage of devastation in the city’s poorer neighborhoods really carries this meaning.

Sizzle is reasonably entertaining and interesting, and makes a valid point about the need for science popularization to be catchy (that point is also made in Flock of Dodos). But, I’m sorry to say, this movie doesn’t tell us all that much about global warming, and Randy’s formidable skills as a filmmaker could have been better employed to that end.

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