Film Review: The Age of Stupid

An eye-opening look at individual contributions to global warming.

The title of the documentary The Age of Stupid refers to the era of the audience. According to the filmmakers, we are wasteful to the point of self-destruction, and the opportunity to prevent our society’s suicide has almost passed. More than in most environmental documentaries, blame is focused on individuals. Sure, oil companies contribute to global warming, but The Age of Stupid makes the people it follows key agents in the big picture of global warming.

As in Traffic or Crash, director Franny Armstrong shows us six stories of people across the globe who embody painful contradictions, and whose lives are somewhat interlinked. How funny, her film seems to say, that an oil geologist could save one hundred people from Hurricane Katrina, without acknowledging that his own work produced carbon emissions that caused the extreme weather. Or that a Nigerian woman, the victim of pollution and poverty caused by a nearby oil operation, covets the belongings and life of Americans, the byproducts of which make her own life miserable. These connections can be dizzying, but, unfortunately for the film, they muddle the argument against global warming by making these people’s struggles too human, their offenses too understandable.

The Age of Stupid
provides a lot of examples, but leaves its thesis implicit. Armstrong acknowledges that in the first cut of the film, “Only people obsessed with climate change could understand all our subtle links.” The problem is not entirely solved. The movie opens with a segment featuring an entrepreneur of a low-cost jet start-up in India. You can tell you’re meant to despise this person’s actions, but the documentary does not give good evidence to back up this position until much later. Even then, it rushes over or omits the reasons why flying is so bad for the environment. Clearly, the movie is meant to be seen by people who are already well-versed and convinced of the various repercussions of global warming. With its small-scale release in the United States, it might not matter that the film hasn’t bothered to persuade the less environmentally aware. They wouldn’t have bought tickets anyway.

Indeed, the most clever and solution-oriented part of the film is its production. Using “crowd-sourced” financing by environmentally sympathetic groups, the project was able to raise £450,000. The producers also reduced crew costs by giving them shares to supplement their reduced wages. In the closing credits, the filmmakers enumerate the carbon footprint created by the film, compiling a list with items like “48 flights, 124,000 miles, 68,100 Kg CO2”. The distribution, too, will occur through a live simulcast to over 400 theatres and guests bicycling to the premiere. This innovative financing and distribution may generate that communal feeling that spurs people into action, something the movie itself does not entirely achieve. Instead of being inspired, viewers may leave the theatre feeling overwhelmed, as though they should never fly, buy a pair of shoes, or use oil-produced plastic again.

The depressing weight of individual responsibility is made dire by the framing story, which is set in the environmental post-apocalypse of 2055. Pete Postlethwaite, playing a survivor, introduces each story as a cautionary tale dredged up from the fictional Global Archives, showing us the inaction that led up to the Earth’s destruction. From this neat graphical interface, we’re also treated to explanatory montages using archival footage, as well as animated segments. However, the style of animation and narration does not match from segment to segment, furthering the feeling of disconnection between the stories.

For those who are environmentally minded, The Age of Stupid is a worthy reminder of one’s responsibility to protect our environment. Statements like “We gorge ourselves on hundreds of years of sunlight [stored in fossil fuel] every year” provide moments of shocking clarity. But these moments are few and far between. The documentary could have benefited from a more compact and message-oriented approach, like that of An Inconvenient Truth. What it shows us, though, is perhaps more real: a messy, complicated picture of global warming, a problem with no easy solution.