Time's Up?

A new documentary considers humanity's dubious future

3 min read

Written by Nadia Conners, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Leila Conners Petersen; directed by Conners and Petersen; produced by DiCaprio, Petersen, Brian Gerber, and Chuck Castleberry; distributed by Warner Independent Pictures and Warner Bros. International Television. Running time: 91 minutes.

Leonardo DiCaprio's new documentary, The 11th Hour , is a flawed but useful contribution from Hollywood on the topic of the future of Planet Earth. The film is slated for an August release and was made available to the press at private screenings in late June and early July.

The movie starts where An Inconvenient Truth leaves off, that is, by assuming the truth of global warming and human responsibility for at least a large share of it. After reviewing the 200-year-old Industrial Revolution's buildup of greenhouse gases, the movie moves on to other assaults on the environment: the destruction of rain forests and resulting deserts and drought; water pollution and overfishing of the oceans; corporate free riding on the externalities of pollutions of all kinds; and the consumer culture by which we vote with our pocketbooks to continue to trash the world instead of restoring it. These are long-established concerns but packaged in vivid new ways. ”Logging in Canada,” the film offers by way of example, ”puts as much carbon into the atmosphere as all of the cars in California every year.”

The 11th Hour does a good job of using dramatic video, expert voice-overs, and statistics to establish in the viewer's mind that humankind's abuses of Earth will lead to a mass extinction on the order of that of the Permian period, when at least 90 percent (95 percent, according to the movie) of all species disappeared. Some scientists interviewed in the movie speculate that while the planet will recover, eventually, as it did 250 million years ago, Homo sapiens might be one of the species to go extinct this time around.

Which brings us to the movie's major flaw. Just as, around the 70-minute mark, we start to uneasily conclude, as the movie seems to want us to, that our chances are grim indeed, we hear experts confirming that very conclusion. The writers (DiCaprio and two sisters, Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners), however, presumably felt that was a bad note to end on. And so they push on with a forced smile for another 15 or more minutes of what feels to be artificial hope, exhorting us to change our attitudes as consumers and citizens.

One expert indeed notes that we have the means to reduce humanity's impact on the planet by 90 percent, raising the specter that a 90 percent change is needed and disregarding how hard it is for human culture to change its behavior by even 10 percent. It doesn't help that one of the voices imploring us to live simpler lives is Stephen Hawking, with his familiar wheelchair and vocalization equipment. Why a man who can't answer the phone without advanced technology is the messenger of a less-technology-please message is unclear to say the least.

This, though, is a small complaint when placed against the movie's effective administration of a tough pill to swallow: the idea that we're killing the planet and we have to stop. DiCaprio aside, The 11th Hour also admirably opts for intellectual luminaries instead of Hollywood stars, including the architects William McDonough and Paolo Soleri; 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai; author-activist Thom Hartmann; experts from the Scripps Institute, the Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the National Geographic Society, and more. All told 50 or so people weigh in, of whom Hawking is probably the best known, except for Mikhail Gorbachev, who has little of interest to say. (His presence highlights an absence of other political support for the movie's more extreme positions.)

The movie's production values are first-rate, though there were one or two lacunae in the press-screening version that presumably will be fixed. DiCaprio narrates with an appealing mixture of erudition and sincere concern. By pushing this film into a studio release (by Warner Bros.) with its message intact, DiCaprio shows he can not only talk the activist talk but also walk the walk. If The 11th Hour shies away from embracing its most funereal conclusion, it is at least willing to take us to the brink of it.

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