I’ve been given the cool opportunity to participate in a mass group review of Randy Olson’s latest science mockumentary, Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, joining approximately fifty other science and environmental bloggers (50 or so bloggers are slated to participate). It’s a cool idea, one that will likely help to promote Sizzle, but one that can also–hopefully–serve to provoke a conversation about our discourse on global warming. Plus, the trailer was pretty funny and it had the guy who does those David Blaine imitations on YouTube, which even made the idea of watching a movie about global warming seem like fun, and while I only infrequently write about science topics (usually when reviewing a doc), I’m very interested in mockumentaries and hybrid docs and wanted to see what Olson would be doing with the form. But a strange thing happened as I was watching the movie: I found myself getting more and more exasperated. After thinking about the film for a few hours, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing (note: after thinking about it for another day, I’m convinced that it actually doesn’t work). I will say that the film pushed quite a few buttons for me, both in terms of its use of the mockumentary genre and its attempt to convince climate scientists that they need to learn how to communicate to a wider public (one of Olson’s stated goals in many of his films).
Sizzle builds upon a relatively basic mockumentary premise: Olson plays a version of himself, a Harvard trained marine biologist, who wants to make a film about global warming. Olson, whose previous credits include Barnacles Tell No Lies (available here) and Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus, plays himself as the dorky scientist who struggles to explain himself to a wider public. In the opening scenes of the movie, we see him pitching the movie to studio executives who are initially interested, until they realize that there are no stars attached, despite Randy’s insistence that he has some of the top climate scientists lined up for interviews. Finally, a wealthy gay couple, Mitch and Brian, looking to make movies that matter steps in, although they hope to find a celebrity to appear in the film. One suggests Tom Cruise until Randy reminds him that Cruise is a Scientologist, not a scientist. They then suggest Kate Winslet, whose British accent is “very convincing.” Mitch and Brian continues to stalk celebrities throughout the film, a nice motif that underscores the green movement’s reliance on stars to make global warming sexy rather than worrying about communicating ideas.
We are then introduced to Randy’s crew, a couple of African-American guys named Antoine and Marion, who once helped Mitch and Brian out of a jam, making them impossible to fire. Unfortunately, to Randy’s consternation they’re always late. And even worse, Marion, in particular, is a global warming skeptic. And he keeps interrupting Randy’s interviews to argue with or shout agreement with the subjects. To some extent, the introduction of these characters begins to sound like a bad bar joke (a scientist, a gay couple, and two black guys go into a bar…), and I haven’t even mentioned the cameo by Randy’s mom. There is a purpose here, of course: Randy’s crew members are supposed to be the “regular guys” who don’t know a lot about global warming but have some vague opinion about it shaped by advertising, news editorials, or maybe that Al Gore documentary. As Mitch, one of Randy’s producers puts it, “we’re upset about global warming, we just don’t know why.” I think Olson’s right to diagnose the success of the green movement in making us uneasy about global warming without necessarily communicating why it’s a concern or even why it’s happening. And Randy’s interviews illustrate that communication problem quite well. Many of the more compelling and charming subjects in his film are the so-called global warming deniers, the scientists, think tankers, and media flacks who profit immensely from contradicting the scientific establishment. That being said, the racial and sexual stereotypes really distracted, to the point that my friends and I could barely concentrate on the film’s scientific arguments.
But here is where I found Sizzle somewhat more frustrating. First, the mockumentary format is somewhat awkwardly executed. During the initial scene in which Antoine and Marion are late, we also learn that they haven’t brought cameras with them. But, of course, we can see them being filmed, which seemed to break the rules of the genre. Once I accepted the rules of this particular mockumentary, I was OK, but Sizzle felt less like a mockumentary than a comedy film about a guy making a documentary. Perhaps more frustrating, at least for me, was the fact that I felt that Olson overplayed his argument about the inability of scientists to communicate their positions against global warming skeptics, and during several key scenes, I felt frustrated by the film’s willingness to let the assertions of many global warming skeptics stand almost unaddressed, even though I think Olson tries to show the inconsistency of their positions, and it left me to wonder precisely what audience Olson had in mind for the film. Other scientists who need to learn to communicate better? People like Marion and Antoine who are confused about global warming? I could easily see a viewer becoming more convinced by this film that global warming is a hoax. Or at least exaggerated.
Eventually the film crew, with the help of Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies, convinces Randy that he should not only include himself in the global warming film he’s making but he should also include Marion’s questions because when Marion asks questions, the scientists speak to him like a regular human being, not like he’s a scientist. And here’s where the film takes a turn that I also found somewhat problematic. Randy eventually decides, on the advice of Oreskes and the crew, to put a human face on the global warming crisis by going to New Orleans to see the continued devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on that city, especially the poor Ninth Ward neighborhood. We get interviews with locals who are still getting their lives back in order after losing everything, and we also get a dramatic sense of the government’s ongoing neglect of the recovery efforts. A tracking shot of FEMA trailers, in fact, needs no commentary, given that many of them had dangerous levels of toxins in them, but again, their use seems disconnected from any specific argument the film wanted to make about global warming.
And here I felt the film risked exploiting the Katrina victims for its scientific argument without sufficiently establishing the link between global warming and the specifics of that particular hurricane. I have little doubt that the Bush administration has been negligent when it comes to responding to both climate change and to the Katrina recovery efforts, but these scenes confused the two to some extent, and I’m not sure that the “human face” technique is fully persuasive to audiences who feel as if they are being emotionally manipulated by the green movement (“save the polar bears!”). I certainly recognize that Olson is trying to do something different here–the film is an odd hybrid between Al Gore and Borat, which means Olson is taking some risks. And there are some interesting moments where scientists are forced out of their comfort levels by Marion’s “naive” questions. In that sense, even though it overreaches in places, Sizzle also provokes, forcing us to think about how we talk and write about scientific topics.
Update: Upon further review, I think my initial impression was right and that I may have been holding back a bit in my criticisms. Sizzle is trying to address the framing debates, which I do think is important given the public confusion about global warming, but in the long run, the film itself is pretty incoherent and relies way too heavily upon racial and sexual stereotypes. As I mentioned before, I think that some audiences could see this film and become more skeptical about global warming, not less. Note: I’ve also done some tweaking to the original version of this review to reflect these sentiments.