By Christopher Bell | The Playlist November 13, 2010 at 7:53AM
Let's be frank, "An Inconvenient Truth" hasn't exactly aged well. It's a glorified slide-show at best, and although it brought the issue of the environment to the front of everyone's mind, it did so by inducing fear. It's not that there's nothing to be afraid of, but the way they did it is very questionable and we only have to direct you to the trailer to prove our point. Four years later, documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner ("Dig!," "We Live in Public") decided to retaliate with a movie following Bjorn Lomborg and his logic, which has made him an enemy of big name climate scientists everywhere. Authoring "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and questioning the overall nominal outcome of extremely costly programs being put into place, Lomborg showcases his own slide-show and lectures, detailing a number of different sides and solutions to a problem that too many feel is a closed issue.
At first, the opening of the film is grating: children speak of global warming with the most alarmist tinge possible, a collection of Al Gore clips display him at his most melodramatic, and various commentators state their differing opinions on Bjorn. It seems like the film is blowing its load too early while doing it in the most obnoxious way possible. Soon, the barrage starts to make sense, and the increasingly frantic cutting represents the typical media onslaught and how it takes complete control over a given situation or topic, drilling certain ideas into the public's mind. This is what Lornborg is up against. The director quickly recaps the life of our skeptic, which includes his childhood, the controversy surrounding his book, and the press (both good and bad) that he has been riding since. Thankfully it doesn't glorify his childhood and make him too sympathetic, it gets in and gets out, quickly establishing where his interest in the planet's livelihood came from and his experience in that field.
From here on, Ondi channels Bjorn's presence, and his confidence comes through much of its style and tone. The majority of the doc follows the author on a lecture circuit, focusing on inconsistencies in the current climate agenda. In between are various interviews conducted all over the world, which breaks the monotony and congestion of the classroom chalk talk. Various subjects are tackled, such as poverty and lack of health care in Kenya or how low the region of Holland sits in comparison to the bodies of water surrounding it. While discussing how little current environmental programs will achieve, he also manages to reign in all information gathered from his journey and pinpoint how to effectively spend the $250 billion allotted to climate change. True, nearly the entire film is Lomborg dropping knowledge, but unless you're the most stubborn viewer, his attitude is completely absorbing and spirited. At worst, he's the "cool teacher" in high school.
The "outside" segments aren't long enough, but the few extended ventures are the most striking. Take one, a contrast between a school in Europe and a school in Kenya, where the children are interviewed about current circumstances affecting the world. The kids in EU talk much about climate change, their gruesomely detailed poster projects demonstrating the end of our planet. One girl even admits to being kept up at night due to this fear, having to pray daily before bed. The Kenyan class yields different results, and as Bjorn asks these children what they really wish the world spent money on, two or three raise their hand for climate change. Remaining students (and even the ones that have already voted) cast ballots for better medical care. The sequence really speaks for itself, it's only at the end that he laments all of the wasted money allocated into programs that tackle an insignificant percentage of the problem, when smarter allotment to different programs would produce a much greater outcome. Global warming, which is said to increase malaria infections, is the culprit for about 3% of the disease in areas where it is easier to recover from due to better medical care. In places it is most prevalent, such as Kenya, malaria infection has little to do with anything other than poor medicine and supplies. Money better spent could slash the 97% chunk of the pie, but instead the focus is the negligible 3% increase. Ondi is smart enough to let Bjorn play his own cards and avoids taking the sappy or overly pushy route, as the proof is in the pudding.
Because of its strong focus on Bjorn fact checking and showing why certain things are wrong or exaggerated, the film does one thing that most of its type don't: it essentially encourages the viewer to do research on anything presented in the film, thus reinforcing the idea of opening discussion and debate. Most of its duration is spent debunking key issues and offering alternatives, and these are done with such energy that its infectious. Its also the openness of the subject, which doesn't promote arguments (if anyone is painted silly, it's those that are so upset over a differing opinion), but discussion, and Lomberg exhibits this with the utmost curiosity and respect during interviews with scientists and children alike. This is a big change (and a big step forward) for these niche documentaries, which tend to have a specific agenda and are directed with blinders on. Their side is right, and they often go as far as to leave an epilogue instructing audiences exactly what to do to further their motive. Those who disagree don't have a difference of opinion, but are assholes or dopes and are edited as so.
However it can't completely shed the most banal elements commonly found in modern docs, such as the playful pop animations and controlled music accompaniments that have regrettably become the norm. One might wonder if this is a requirement for all documentaries to have in order to receive funding. It could be argued that the cartoons that supplement certain points of information make droll information easier to digest, but their increasing inclusions feel belittling and give it a classroom feel, which is worse considering a portion of the film is in a university lecture hall already. There's also certain times which involve either a good point being made or a fight won, and underneath the sequence is a triumphant score to really drive it home. To be fair, it doesn't happen often, but it's a bigger shame because the movie manages to steer away from these moments otherwise. For brief points in time its hand is blatantly shown, and though it's a small taste of audience manipulation, it's hard to flush the palate completely.
Towards the end, Bjorn's slideshow comes to alternative energy, and he displays some rather intriguing and blossoming energy sources such as algae, waves, hydrogen and terra power. It's all very fascinating -- with not enough time spent on each, honestly -- but what's really bothersome is his reluctance to drill these people with questions. He's a bit too accepting, and these ideas aren't given the same interrogative treatment he has given everything else. It's not only a let down, but it's vaguely suspicious and pretty lazy. A man challenges a huge movement, nitpicks their agenda, finds alternative answers (some in their infancy) and that's it? Neither Bjorn nor the director finish the job; they expose the audience to new ideas but give a special, off-hands treatment to them. Yes, it forces those audiences that are really enamored to scrutinize on their own, but that feels more like "excuse" rather than "intention."
Lomberg wraps up his lecture at a chalkboard, outlining his own plan for climate change. It was a bumpy, highly informational ride, one that was impeccably paced through feeding off of his confidence and energy. Whether he's right or not (cue a following documentary attacking his claims), the real question is how the the piece works as a film. "Cool It" does slip up and rely on modern doc conventions once and awhile, and maybe it tries too hard to be an alternative "An Inconvenient Truth" instead of completely standing on its own, but it's still highly informative and encourages audiences to think outside of the box. [B-]