The Age of Stupid (Franny Armstrong, 2008)
Somewhere in the innards of The Age of Stupid is a really, really good idea. But Franny Armstrong beat, pummelled, tortured, and scarred it until it was a twisted, unrecognizable, hateful, murderous shell of itself, the insane stepbrother of 12 Monkeys that was kept locked in the basement and fed nothing but dead rats until it was forty-five years old, then kicked out of the house and left to forage for itself. As expected, it turned to murder and cannibalism, but was too incompetent even for that, getting knocked over the head by a little old lady and turned into the police, who shot it in the temple, putting it out of its misery, rather than letting it survive. Okay, that last bit only happened in my fantasies. Instead, it turned to making movies and The Age of Stupid, a clunky, Neanderthal piece of Michael-Moore-style “documentary” filmmaking with all the subtlety of a homeless schizophrenic pissing on a cinema wall, was the result.
Armstrong (McLibel) posits a future in which Earth is a destroyed shell of itself. An archivist (The Usual Suspects‘ Pete Postlethwaite), one of the last surviving humans on the planet, is surfing through data from the year 2008 to try and figure out where it all went wrong. (Plot hole #1: if the Earth went so far downhill so fast—Armstrong names, of course, the most hysterical numbers she could for the timeline—who developed all the cool technology Postlethwaite’s character is using?) Yep, that’s pretty much it.
Before I go any farther with the excoriation (I can’t really call it a criticism—well, okay, I’m criticizing the presentation of the science, I’m excoriating the larger frame into which she dropped it, which is atrocious), and with the full knowledge that putting this here is probably worse than useless, in the interests of full disclosure: reviews are not written in a vacuum. I am not, and have never been, a simple climate-change denier, and I have favorably reviewed other works that take climate change as a given. My record of same goes back at least to 2004 if you feel like paging through Amazon reviews, but a much more recent film made my 25-best list the same year The Age of Stupid made my 25 worst: Chasing Ice. Before dismissing the below as simple anti-climate-change propaganda, at least go read my review of that one so you have a basic idea of where I’m coming from. That said:
I alluded to the film’s first, and foremost, problem above. I can’t really fault Armstrong for it in one sense, because anyone who depends on forecasting statistics in order to posit a system of belief is affected by it. There are those who say America’s system of Social Security is fully funded through 2075, too. Using forecasting statistics is a very tricky thing to do correctly, and the #1 thing you can do wrong when using them is to take those numbers as use them as fact. If you live in America and are old enough, you may remember the environmental PSAs that ran on MTV in the mid- to late eighties. According to those, the Brazilian rainforest was going to be gone by 1985, the ozone layer by 1990. Oddly, my wife is still as pale as ever despite occasionally going outside, and I haven’t noticed a sudden shortage of wood anytime in the last twenty years. Armstrong makes the same mistake those MTV promos did—she not only takes forecast statistics and uses them as fact, but like most people who make “documentaries” that are focused more on marketing hysteria than they are in imparting knowledge (note: the use of the term “marketing” there is not casual), she cherry-picked the most hysterical numbers she could find. Now, I will admit that it is possible that the extremists are right and the moderates are wrong. It may happen at some point. It has never happened where the environment is concerned, so I’m willing to accept playing the odds and listen to the levelheaded scientists, not the wolf-criers who are more interested in publicity than actual science.
A worse problem is that, like Michael Moore, Franny Armstrong makes absolutely no effort to be in any way even-handed here, which is why I keep using “documentary” in quotes. Armstrong set out to make a scare film, and she amplified the scare-film effect with the framework into which she stuck her actual (and, once again, cherry-picked) documentary footage; if you were unaware that this was a scare film rather than a documentary based on the actual footage, well, the sci-fi trappings of the frame should leave you with absolutely no question. I am normally of the stance that reviews are opinion and not fact, and thus everything is a question and they can’t be “right” or “wrong”, but in this, I have to assert that this is fact, not opinion, and that Armstrong telegraphed this without any ambiguity whatsoever thanks to the framework she used in this movie. She meant this to be a scare film. It’s the ecodoco equivalent of Larry Fishburne, back when he was still called Larry, at the end of Spike Lee’s School Daze, striding across campus with a big bell yelling “WAKE UP!” over and over again. The problem is, well, that’s the weakest scene in an otherwise unrecognized classic. (And another thing I will admit to in this review: I might have rated it half a star higher were it not for Armstrong’s kind of obvious nods to La Jetée. And the offense that I took in that regard is opinion, and YMMV, and I am totally okay with that, but if you question that this is a scare film and not a straight documentary, we don’t have that much to talk about here.)
I am in no way dismissing any of the underlying points that Armstrong is trying to make here, not even the seemingly-controversial wind-farm bit (I’ve been hearing anti-wind-farm arguments for thirty years, and personally, I find the jury still out) that has been chewed over in various net communities I’m part of for years now. But Armstrong, in this movie, posits the most extreme solutions to these problems as the only solutions to these problems, and she posits that these most extreme solutions need to be enacted right now or we are headed for inevitable planetary destruction. In this, she is no different than anyone since, oh, Constantine, and I’m sure the Neanderthals had their doomsayers, and so on back until the first quadrupeds walked out of the ocean. The problem we have now is that instead of the doomsayers being easily dismissible because the mechanisms they are positing simply do not exist, this current breed of doomsayer is perverting actual problems, and instead of giving us something we can all work from, giving us something that is guaranteed to alienate as much of the viewing audience as possible. I have seen this film called propaganda. That is incorrect. Propaganda, by definition, is aimed at convincing people who may be on the fence, or who are of another mindset and might be converted. The Age of Stupid, like the twin demons of American media, Glenn Beck on the right and Jon Stewart on the left, is simply preaching to the choir, and doing so in a way that is as inflammatory as possible. I give zero-star reviews for two reasons: either I did not finish a piece of media, or that media is patently offensive for easily-explainable reasons. I hope, in this review, I have imparted why this movie—which I did completely watch—got a zero. Easily one of the most offensive movies I have ever encountered. (zero)