The Funniest Movie About Global Warming Ever Made
At the outset of science documentarian Randy Olson’s new climate change flick, Sizzle, the filmmaker (playing himself, sort of) goes to pay a visit to his funders. It turns out they’re a gay couple, Mitch and Brian, who in real life are comic actors trained in the famed Los Angeles Groundlings improv troupe. Standing on the balcony of an insanely cushy Malibu home overlooking the ocean, Mitch asks Randy a question that, much like this movie itself, is equal parts hilarious and revealing: “We really, really want to make this film, and we feel very, very passionate about global warming, and we’re very, very upset about it. We just don’t know why.”
Sizzle ultimately answers that “why” question in a surprisingly penetrating way. But not before a comedic romp in which Olson’s all-too-dryly scientific agenda for putting together a good documentary on climate change—he thinks it will be great to have lots of data, scientist interviews, and PowerPoint slides—gets repeatedly dashed. His funders commence a search for a celebrity host like Tom Cruise (“not a scientist but a Scientologist—most people don’t know the difference”) and his African American cameraman, Marion, constantly interrupts the interviews to inject global warming skepticism and thus “keep it real.” What ultimately results is a film that might be best described as An Inconvenient Truth meets Best in Show. It also may be the funniest global warming movie ever made (unless you count The Day After Tomorrow, which didn’t mean to be).
Olson’s previous movie, Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus, represented a more straightforward attempt at science documentary. But it offered some challenging and unconventional lessons, critiquing scientists for their inability to communicate about evolution and even, at times, catching them behaving badly. (In the film’s poker table scene, one scientist says of talking to the anti-evolution folks: “I think you have to stand up and say, you know, ‘you’re an idiot.’”) Sizzle continues this theme about communication, but through a richer departure: Now Olson has merged climate science with improv comedy, provided a little-heard African-American and gay perspective on climate change, and thereby further dramatized the incredibly vast gap between how scientists think about the issue and how ordinary people do. Or as Olson puts it upon hooking up with these funders and this camera crew: “I’d ventured a long ways from my old science lab.” Yes he has—and he has produced a film that sets a kind of trap for too-literal-minded scientists: If they react negatively to it, they’ll just be proving Olson’s point—that they don’t know how to relax, how to “keep it real,” how to communicate.
If you want to communicate science, you can’t just rely on facts; you have to make the story matter to people.
For indeed, as Sizzle builds towards its payoff (more on that in a second), it increasingly moves from interviewing real climate scientists—who tend to be staid and matter-of-fact—to interviewing a troupe of global warming “skeptics”—who are wrong on the science, but also extremely colorful and memorable. The gang is perhaps epitomized by University of Southern California geologist George Chillingarian, who appears to wear a fake mustache that isn’t quite attached properly, and who serves the film crew champagne. Marion calls him “Dr. Chill,” and it’s not just the science that he’s talking about.
Luckily, Olson knows his climate science far too well to give global warming “skeptics” the last word. In fact, even though he finds them the better communicators and on camera personalities, he still knows how they can be trumped. And so Sizzle proceeds to phase three, which involves interviewing real people in New Orleans, whose lives have been upended and who have become the poster children for the risks of climate change to American communities. These citizens, we soon see, are even more “real” than the climate skeptics. Katrina did massively more to dramatize global warming than thousands of scientific papers could do, and Sizzle gradually becomes recognizable as a narrative exploration of that lesson: If you want to communicate science, you can’t just rely on facts; you have to make the story matter to people.
That’s a critical punch-line, because for the media, for documentarians, for filmmakers, global warming is probably the hardest story there is to tell. It’s a slow-acting problem; there’s no single obvious culprit (greenhouse gases are invisible); the science is confusing and contested; and there’s very little any one person can do about it. There aren’t any clear heroes; there isn’t any stark bad guy; ultimately, it’s all just molecules doing their thing. But none of this means we shouldn’t be upset—to answer Mitch’s question—because as Katrina showed, not even a country as rich as the United States can necessarily cope with the changes that are coming. And that means a lot of pain. A lot of suffering. A lot of impacts on real people.
At the outset of Sizzle, even before he runs into Mitch and Brian, Olson-the-mockumentary-character participates in a scene that will be all too familiar for people trying to promote science (or anything else) in Hollywood: He meets with studio executives to try to get funding for his global warming documentary, and they won’t give him the time of day. Yet even without such big-time support, Olson-in-real-life has managed to produce a wonderful film, a remarkable achievement. In light of this, it would be a true shame if scientists, science bloggers, and science pundits make the same mistakes as the literal-minded scientist-documentarian portrayed in this film, and fail to realize what Olson (in real life) has accomplished.
Let’s hope they avoid that error. Let’s hope they can chill. Let’s hope they get real.
Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.
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