Movie review: '11th Hour' has big ego, but little depth

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2007 - 4:38 PM

As advocacy filmmaking, it could be better.

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Actor and screenwriter Leonardo DiCaprio poses during a photocall for the film, "The 11th Hour," presented out of competition at the 60th International Film Festival in Cannes, France, Saturday, MaActor and screenwriter Leonardo DiCaprio poses during a photocall for the film, y 19, 2007. (Calo-MF/Abaca Press/MCT)

Photo: Calo-Mf, Mct - Mct

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"The 11th Hour" features more than 50 scientists and political commentators sounding the alarm that planetary climate turmoil is sure to occur unless we change our polluting ways.

Physicist Stephen Hawking warns that if Earth's ozone shield is breached, it could become a sister to Venus, with a 500-degree surface temperature and sulfuric acid rain. Eco-activist Kenny Ausubel observes, "Damage previously in history has been ... much smaller in scale. The difference today ... is that we now have the capacity for the first time ever to blow it on a global scale."

American politics being the polarized Punch-and-Judy show that it is (hi, bloggers!), the science of such claims is often lost amid the screeching of aggrieved ideologues. Admit it: Your views on the issue are set in stone, and anyone who challenges them is a dangerous nut, right? So let's study "The 11th Hour" simply as advocacy filmmaking and judge it on those merits.

It could be better.

Weak visuals: With fast-paced montages of stock-footage weather catastrophes, the film links environmental degradation to tornadoes, floods and hurricanes without demonstrating a clear cause-and-effect connection. Photogenic calamities alternate with talking heads photographed against a shadowy limbo, a look so boringly PBS-like that you expect a pledge drive to break out at any moment.

The ego factor: Producer/presenter Leonardo DiCaprio appears on camera more than any of the experts do. Solemn to a fault, DiCaprio wrinkles his brow into a fair replica of the pi symbol to demonstrate his pained concern for our fragile planet. While DiCaprio's box-office appeal was crucial to financing this project, off-screen narration would have removed the criticism that this is a righteous vanity project. Amazingly, DiCaprio proves a less engaging guide than Al Gore, who gave "An Inconvenient Truth" more personal warmth and a greater sense of intellect. On the positive side, most of the film's other speakers earned their right to address the issues by virtue of their knowledge, rather than celebrity.

Old news: Is there anyone outside of a coma unit who has not heard that rain forests and ice caps are shrinking?

Mushy focus: Like a debater who dropped his note cards, the film skitters from war to consumerism to sustainable architecture to overfishing of the oceans to dwindling oil supplies to international finance and beyond without a unifying through-line. More than 50 speakers pop up in the 90-minute film, and only a few make a lasting impression.

While it's nice to hear encouraging words such as entrepreneur Paul Hawken's -- "what an exciting time to be alive, because this generation gets to completely remake this world" -- "The 11th Hour" is unlikely to leave many viewers inspired, galvanized or significantly better informed. As a call to action, it's sincere but flawed, and as an inquiry into humankind's bafflingly self-destructive tendencies, it scarcely scratches the surface.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

  • THE 11TH HOUR

    1½ out of 4 stars

    Rated: PG For Thematic issues.

    The setup: A documentary about ecological damage, presented by Leonardo DiCaprio.

    What works: It's a well-intentioned piece of advocacy filmmaking.

    What doesn't: It's pretty clumsy.

    Great line: Geneticist David Suzuki's observation, "Economists don't include all of the things that nature does for us for nothing."

    Where: Lagoon.

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