Film Review: Switch

Documentary about energy sources is ironically lackadaisical.

Switch educates in the manner of a made-for-classroom film. Harry Lynch and Dr. Scott Tinker have created a professional and educational exploration into current and future ways we harness energy for everyday use. But the film’s approach is a little too “balanced” to please anyone on any side of the issue.

Lynch, the director, and Dr. Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas, embark on a noble journey to better understand how energy is made and used. They visit a coal mine, a nuclear-power plant, a hydroelectric power plant, the office of the U.S. Undersecretary of Energy, the mercantile exchange (to track the market’s obsession with oil prices), a Gulf of Mexico oil-well rig and an energy conference in India, among other noteworthy and far-flung locations.

Lynch and Tinker do an above-average job photographing, editing and scoring their picture. But the co-creators’ search for answers seems both sincere and naïve at the same time. Their questioning of representatives—either of the government or gas and oil companies (like Shell) are much too softball-friendly. Apparently, Switch was never meant to be overtly political, but by avoiding the “hotter” aspects of environmental concerns, the film conveys the look, feel and attitude of one of those oil company TV commercials where the actors play industry types who claim to want (but don’t really want) a responsible use of standard (i.e., coal and oil) energy.

As Switch progresses, a few environmentalists get their voices heard. A professor, Dan Sperling, for example, discusses the necessary societal shift from fossil fuels to biofuels. We also learn about the differences between corn-based and sugar-based ethanol, the tax credits people get from using solar energy, Denmark’s drive to develop turbine energy, and some other experiments in the offing.

Though Switch is being compared to An Inconvenient Truth, the urgency of the earlier documentary is missing. In fact, the new film barely expresses the impending doom of societies not acting immediately. Also, where is the accountability of the oil companies? Why doesn’t Tinker or Lynch ask about how their profits (thanks to price-gouging) are higher than ever or how they spend a fortune on lobbyists in Washington to kill legislation that would regulate their industry to be safer? At other points, the critique of fracking and “clean coal” is so mild as to almost sound praiseworthy. Notably, the BP and Fukushima disasters or their after-effects are not represented in any visual way—these recent catastrophic events are merely mentioned.

One can hope the filmmakers were just trying to be “fair-minded” and that this doc wasn’t the product of a wealthy oil conglomerate trying to disguise their true intent with a series of sops to concerned-citizen viewers. Either way, Switch shouldn’t be the first or last word on the energy topic.