Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)
Written by: Mark Monroe
Directed by: Fisher Stevens
Oscar-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens won’t change the world with his ambitious but overly familiar and ultimately underwhelming examination of man’s impact on the global environment, but his efforts aren’t completely in vain. Before the Flood uses the immense popularity of bonafide Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio to raise its profile as the actor embarks on a three-year mission around the globe to educate himself on the most pressing environmental concerns of our time.
The central thesis is familiar but nonetheless significant, one that’s fundamentally concerned with man’s over-reliance on unsustainable sources of energy such as fossil fuels, a pattern that has for years now been linked to rising global temperatures, rising sea levels and the destruction of the natural world. In pursuit of causality Before the Flood, executive produced by DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese among others, stresses the interconnectivity of our global ecosystem, the politicking that goes into climate change denial (not everyone wants to believe 8 billion people can have such a profound impact on one planet) and how various parts of the world are often left to clean up the messes created by others.
In the process of touring through many devastating sites DiCaprio narrates his experiences via a somber, if not overly pessimistic voiceover. He explains how Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ served as a creative inspiration for the film’s thematic explorations. This stunningly ornate triptych traces the evolution of humanity as it depicts man’s origin in the idyllic Garden of Eden in the first frame, merging into a colorful display of excess, celebration and blissful ignorance in the second before eventually transitioning into a frightening scene filled with death, destruction and suffering in the shocking third panel. DiCaprio elaborates, explaining how man’s current state places us firmly in the center panel and ruminating on how long it might be before we find ourselves entering the third.
What’s most impressive about the film is watching one of the world’s most established thespians mute himself enough so that he is firmly a part of the picture. In other words, while his celebrity status undoubtedly will draw in viewers who might not necessarily watch this sort of thing, his ego is nowhere to be found. DiCaprio is extremely humbled by what he finds, and more than humbled he is legitimately bothered. His perturbation comes across genuine, if not in his pursed-lip/silent nod reactions to what he witnesses in Canada, Indonesia, Greenland and India (among other locales) then in the amount of questions that pour out of him along the way. Some may find his lack of knowledge a barrier but if anything his acknowledgment of that very ignorance opens the film up considerably.
And yeah, you can probably accuse DiCaprio of hypocrisy if you really wanted to. If you’re looking for some way to make his involvement more about Hollywood than the environment, you might note the irony in DiCaprio likely making another film in the coming year(s), in him traveling around in luxury cars and luxury private jets and being involved in an industry that creates a massive ecological footprint, be it the electricity consumed to light sets or the amount of material required to make scenes believable. It’s also not entirely unreasonable to suggest that if the actor truly wants to make a difference, he might have to consider a hiatus from acting, permanently, in order to fully pursue efforts to fix things. And given everything he says in Before the Flood, it seems like Leo really wants to get his hands dirty (in a good way).
DiCaprio’s position in the entertainment industry enables him to speak with some of the most prominent environmental activists and climate-conscious politicians — Senator John Kerry is interviewed and there’s a brief Al Gore sighting. Aside from these figures, he speaks briefly with President Obama and one of the film’s highlights surfaces in a candid chat with Indian environmentalist Dr. Sunita Narain — where he’s met with compelling resistance as Narain argues that meeting the most basic demands of India’s bulging population is a concern that supersedes the need to find alternate sources of energy. He also interviews scientists and specialists who each share their unique perspectives, almost all of which confirm the notion that humanity is indeed reaching a critical point where it needs to learn how to adapt or the damage done will likely be irreversible. With a rapidly swelling global population these concerns are only going to become more challenging in the years and decades to come, and so the urgency of addressing and finding solutions to them in the here and now naturally becomes a big stressor . . . lest we face the reality of regaling our grandchildren about how Alaska used to be covered in cerulean yet crystal-clear icebergs.
Circling back to the contradiction of seeing a major film star touting environmental awareness: Before the Flood is most compelling when we are taken behind the scenes of Leo’s most recent (and Oscar-winning) film, The Revenant, which, aside from presenting one of the most visceral and singular cinematic experiences in recent memory, focused on the impact early settlers had on their surroundings: poachers destroying everything in their path on their journey to make ends meet; settlers slashing-and-burning forest. That shoot was infamously challenging but for reasons other than the obvious. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and crew were forced to relocate hemispheres — from the Canadian Rockies to the Andes in Argentina — in search of snow when they experienced unseasonably high temperatures in the north. Listening in on these conversations gives an entirely fresh and direct perspective.
If that’s not convincing enough, perhaps the fact that Indian farmers watched their crops washed away, leaving dozens of families — children — starving after they received their entire annual rainfall over the course of a day will sober you up. Or that entire, neighborhood-sized chunks of ice in the Arctic Circle are melting faster than you can measure them. Rising global temperatures and the rapid shrinking of the polar caps continue to strain Inuit fishermen’s livelihood as they hunt bears, a population that has been dwindling in response to changing conditions. There are other examples as well, but these are among the most undeniable, the most disturbing.
DiCaprio is a great mascot but ultimately the production he’s passionately become involved in doesn’t give us much in the way of revelation. Fisher likes to dwell on the gloom-and-doom talk seemingly more than he wants to find solutions and the solemnity eventually becomes off-putting. The numbers and statistics and graphics that accompany the vast sea of information we’re provided don’t really add impact. They add to the science, sure, but Before the Flood lacks the actual urgency that its message all but demands. There is, however, a glimmer of hope and human ingenuity when we step inside the Tesla Gigafactory 1, an enormously cavernous space that will house the production lines of millions of electric vehicles and energy-efficient lithium batteries. The latest venture of Tesla founder Elon Musk opened in July of 2016 and, once operating at full capacity in 2020, it will manifest as the world’s largest building. He judges that 100 such facilities spread throughout the world would make a significant impact on energy reduction and would lead to massive curtailing of raw material usage.
Like a great many of the “it’s so obvious” revelations that we’re bombarded with in the face of all this maddening destruction, DiCaprio’s deduction that “[100 gigafactories] seems manageable” is a tad too naive. The intent behind the film is good, it’s sincere, but Before the Flood settles for inciting immediate reaction. It wants to see us flap our arms in panic and despair rather than inspire us into action and perhaps even legitimate activism.
Recommendation: Activists, behold a famous actor who truly seems to give a damn about the only place we will ever call Home. Only time will tell just how for real he is, but I want to believe in him. I think Before the Flood is a force for good but it should have been more potent than it actually is. Still a decent recommendation from me, and one you should definitely spend time with no matter your political leaning, something that’s well worth tracking down as it is available for free on so many different platforms (at least for now).
Running Time: 96 mins.
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