Although its previews describe a film filled with hard-hitting facts and statistics, “The 11th Hour” is fundamentally a movie of emotion. Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, this documentary about man’s destruction of the Earth uses sweeping shots of nature, dramatic music (Enya-esque!) and interviews with intimidating authorities (including Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai) to move its audience on behalf of the planet and environmentalism. It is a powerful film that not enough people will watch (there were four people in the theater when I saw it, myself included), and it maintains a strong emotional drive that is broken only at its end.
When this movie was first announced, it was not clear how it would differ from Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary film that examined various aspects of global warming. “The 11th Hour” smartly puts itself in dialogue with “An Inconvenient Truth,” addressing a wider range of environmental issues, attempting to present a whole picture of the Earth in crisis rather than just a climate gone haywire. “The 11th Hour” is actually far more ambitious than Gore’s film, in that it tries to move its audiences to change not only their behavior, but the belief systems that justify that behavior.
Going where no American politician would ever dare to go (and Gore is still a politician, amiable facial hair notwithstanding), “The 11th Hour” eventually becomes a critique of America’s consumerist mentality, urging its viewers to give up wasteful consumption of consumer products and enjoy what DiCaprio refers to as “the good things in life” (he keeps this ambiguous: presumably family, kittens etc.). In a climax both bizarre and wonderful, various commentators urge a “total shift in thought” while a surreal montage of postmodernist imagery is played on the screen, complete with pink teenage girls shopping at pink shopping malls, ridiculous advertisements for credit cards and sped-up clips of assembly lines. To urge a general audience to give up a way of life with which they have been raised is daring and commendable, and DiCaprio deserves praise for heading such an ambitious project.
Unfortunately, certain elements of “The 11th Hour” contradict this radical content. After 70 minutes of dire predictions regarding mankind’s future, the filmmakers instinctively reach for a Hollywood happy ending, using a mix of nature montage, upbeat music and inspirational words from various authorities to send the audience into a swoon of hazy glee. This kind of ending has a paradoxical effect: The audience walks out of a movie about the Earth’s imminent destruction feeling happy and uplifted. Such an ending only serves to undermine the film’s conviction, as it seems the filmmakers are shying away from their own warnings, as though even they are afraid to admit how bad the situation really is.
This sort of hedging of bets would be bad enough, but the film’s ending undermines its power in an even more serious way. Much of the end centers around the authorities’ ebullient descriptions of how new, environmentally-friendly technologies — mainly wind and solar power — are going to change the world we live in. The descriptions are vague, and give the audience no concrete way of implementing these new technologies. This kind of vagueness is crippling, as it only makes the new technologies seem fantastic, and therefore unrealistic, to the viewers, as wonderful and illusory as jet-packs and moon rockets. Such a result actually serves the interests of those who deceptively promote the use of more “practical” fuels (i.e. oil and coal) until cleaner fuels can be made more “economically viable.” Indeed, the end of “The 11th Hour” is reminiscent of the recent advertisements by oil companies, in which those companies portray the use of wind and solar energies as noble and beautiful (and therefore not practical, though that part goes unsaid in the commercials).
It is disappointing that “The 11th Hour” ends in this way, as it is otherwise a powerful and effective documentary. It earnestly asks its viewers to change their very way of life, a bold demand that mainstream politics and the popular media will never even approach. The main body of the movie portrays a world in crisis, and perhaps the filmmakers are just as afraid of this crisis as the viewers, so afraid that they had to shy away from it at the film’s end.