The Age of Stupid: a film too clever, and not clever enough

The converted will love this docudrama’s preachy tone. They chortle at the green in-jokes, and give it a round of applause. It has a message for New Zealanders, but will it reach a wider audience?

I’m sorry about what follows. It feels a lot like farting in church.

The Age of Stupid has been breathlessly lauded and hyped, since its UK release to which celebrities – gasp – rode bikes! I hoped it would be The Thing: the box office epiphany that would, finally, penetrate public consciousness and turn this Titanic vessel around. I wanted to feel the fear, as I do so often lately, just watching the news. I wanted something to give me hope that others are feeling it too.

This documentary is the human face of The Inconvenient Truth, with a futuristic framing device set in 2055. Pete Postlethwaite, the archivist, in his Arctic (geddit?) fastness in which pickled beasts are lined up two by two, has collected all the art and lore of the world in a museum for our times. He might be the last man on earth, rattling in his time capsule. He is certainly Everyman. He peers into the camera, and wonders what went wrong. We see glimpses of ourselves, as if in a mirror, while he reviews a mash-up of contemporary news footage and the six true stories that comprise the documentary.

In Europe, 82-year old Mont Blanc mountain guide Fernand Pereau remembers how, as a boy, he could step straight on to the glacier. These days he negotiates a 150-meter ladder, down into a crater that once was filled with ice. The “glacier”, upon arrival, looks more like a mountain stream.

In India, Jeh Wadia regards it as his mission in life to elevate people from poverty. He wants to get the 15 million who ride the trains daily on to Air Bus; he is starting a budget airline.

In Africa, Layefa Malemi catches a couple of fish and matter-of-factly rinses the oil off them with Omo. Her Niger Delta village’s ability to sustain itself conventionally, by fishing, has been wiped out by oil pollution. She wishes it was like America; if you were living that beautiful life, she thinks, you wouldn’t even want to die.

Cut to New Orleans. Oil geologist Alvin DuVernay, who lost everything he owned in Hurricane Katrina, is a local hero. He negotiated the drowning city at treetop-level (“you get a new perspective”) in his boat, rescuing two- and four-legged survivors. You come to understand what’s important, he says, adding that he would work for Shell again, rhapsodising about the oily smell of money.

In the Middle East, Jamila and Adnan Bayyoud are 8 and 9-year old Iraqi refugees to Jordan. Their home was destroyed and their father killed by Americans. They never want to see Americans again, they say, but they play Americans incessantly – killing each other. Their brother, scarred for life by burns from the nylon he was wearing that day (nylon is made from oil) makes his entrance grinning, in a Hummer.

And in Cornwall, Piers Guy, a wind farm developer trying to live sustainably, battles to establish 30 windmills on a disused naval airbase. We enjoy a cheap much-needed laugh at the expense of the upper class “nimby”, a serial opposer of wind farms, who is very concerned about climate change, and insists we absolutely must all do our bit.

Above all, it’s a tale of addiction. Fernand Pereau is old enough to recognise how much life has changed; he comments that, when water had to be manually fetched, one understood the importance of not wasting it. Everyone else is living the ruinous consequences of our greed and laziness, and hankering for more. The jaw-dropping contradictions and lack of self-awareness will have you shaking your head and wondering if you misread the blurb: it defies belief that all this could be spontaneous, unscripted, true.

If a mass market audience was the target, this would be risky. Coupled with the distancing effect of the framing device, that we are never allowed to forget, it’s disastrous. Every time the brilliance of the documentary footage might be in danger of speaking too loudly for itself, back we go, to Postlethwaite’s post-apocalyptic visage and mawkish musings. No, his children never blamed him; they were too busy negotiating their way through food riots and refugee camps. His grandchildren might have been angry, had they lived…

Interspersed are animations, annoyingly trite – sort of Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) meets The Story of Stuff – illustrating our economic dependence on oil and consumption. There’s a subtext here that New Zealanders should heed.

Throughout history, nations have gone to war to take or defend what is valuable. Oil is the example given. In future, it could be food. To the Ministers who present food insecurity as an opportunity for our tiny country: I can’t dredge up a withering-enough retort.

And so, we come to “THE END?”. It is based on scientific predictions of the exponential speed and effects of climate change, once the tipping point has been reached. That is predicted to be in 2015, if business as usual continues. In other words, if global carbon emissions have not peaked in the next 6 years, the “2 degree” fight is all but certainly lost, and if average warming exceeds 2 degrees, effects are likely to be self-perpetuating, from the melting of permafrost, Arctic ice, and so on. (It may help to remember, too, that consistently, to date, science has been on the conservative side of actual outcomes.)

You can understand and accept all this, and yet The Age of Stupid still strains comprehension. It would do that anyway, but two things overtax the imagination. First, the suspension of disbelief required to conceive of Postlethwaite’s “ark” being built in the midst of said food riots and calamitous weather – although I suppose, it would be a very human trait to be thinking about posterity while all else crumbles. Secondly, parts of the film are just naff. The favourably pre-disposed will excuse this; it’s an on-message low-budget indie production. To a wider audience that has come to take Weta wizardry for granted, the whole futuristic thing totally fails to ring true.

My own shortcomings are as much to blame here as director Franny Armstrong’s. The squalid depiction of humanity that you’ll find in The Age of Stupid was never going to leave me other than grimly detached. I can’t help comparing it with Earth, last year’s climate change message movie. For days afterwards, thinking about it, I found myself in tears. People didn’t feature in that movie. We’re dragging a living planet with us down into the maelstrom – a cruel, evil waste.