Film Review: Planetary

Documentary interviews over two dozen astronauts, philosophers, scientists, poets, and teachers who offer ways to save the world from climate change and other destructive forces.
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To celebrate Earth Day, Planetary is being released simultaneously in theaters and on Vimeo on Demand. This feature-length lecture gathers dozens of speakers from around the globe to address climate change, income inequality, and other crises facing humanity.

Building from their earlier short Overview, writer and editor Steve Watts Kennedy and director Guy Reid start in outer space, as astronauts describe how seeing Earth as a planet changed their attitudes about humanity as a species.

Philosophers explain how space travel helps us realize that we have a common destiny. But scientists warn that human impact on the planet has led to an ecological crisis. Cosmologist Brian Swimme notes that we are in the midst of a mass extinction: "There has never been a moment more destructive."

That's not all that troubles mankind. By living in cities we have severed our connection to nature. The endless pursuit of material goods leaves us dissatisfied. We are no longer in control of technology, are losing our sense of empathy, and search fruitlessly for meaning in our lives.

A strong current of spiritualism runs through the documentary. The speakers include Zen priests, Buddhist teachers, and people like Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and abbot of the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe; His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism; and Alan Senauke, vice abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center.

Not unexpectedly, their solutions tend to revolve around meditation, about changing identity, moving away from individuality, and finding an interconnection with the universe.

As Halifax notes, "There is no inherent separate self, we are conterminous with everything." Physicist Peter Russell thinks we must "let go of this egocentric materialistic consciousness." Activist Dr. Joanna Macy calls for "a transition from an industrial-growth society to a life-sustaining society."

Reid and his crew surround their talking heads with archival footage from NASA as well as the standard nature documentary arsenal: helicopter shots of urban wastelands and degraded landscapes, time-lapse photography of flowers blooming, portraits of indigenous peoples wearing earnest expressions. The images run together until they lose meaning, so that a shot of Manhattan at night looks as pretty as a pelican wading in the surf. Bubbling underneath is a soothing, meditative score by the Human Suits that erases any sense of urgency from the interviews.

While a less materialistic society might be better for the environment, not everyone can afford to abandon soul-killing cities to meditate in rain forests or on mountaintops. Despite its good intentions, Planetary speaks only to those who already agree with the filmmakers.

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