Everything on Earth and beyond is connected. That's both the message and the method in Planetary, the documentary due for release on Wednesday, April 22, which is Earth Day. It is about the world, our place in it and the peril we face.
On the surface the film looks like a documentary about climate change, but even that outlook is slightly fluid – the film has a languorous and freewheeling style that seems somehow superficial and deep at the same time.
It's not about hard science – the film seems to understand we don't need any more of that. The talking heads include astronauts who have had the privilege of gazing back at the Earth from afar, Buddhist monks, philosophers, ecologists and a poet.
Much of what they say is the stuff of poetry books – platitudes about how fragile and beautiful our world is and how we are all connected to nature and part of it rather than separated from it or living on top of it.
The depth in the film comes when you are least expecting it. Several speakers raise the interesting point that humanity’s view of itself – of ourselves – is the overarching problem.
Planetary takes a long view about how our whole way of living has to shift.
As one philosopher puts it, “the kind of intelligence we need is not data, but narrative”. Humans, as Planetary points out, are made up of stories, and the prominent one of our time is about individual achievement and economic growth, all of which decouple us from nature.
There are sequences where the material moves in a direction that might turn some viewers off slightly – like the stretch where Native American elders and Eastern traditionalists impart some New Age ideas. But then an ecologist reminds you that 90% of the human body is made up of foreign cells. Despite some hippyish folk wisdom, the film’s claims are grounded in science.
Perhaps mindful of what has come before – from The Whole Earth Catalog to An Inconvenient Truth – Planetary does not tell you much you do not already know about how much damage we are causing to the environment, but in a sense the documentary is not really about that. The film is saying it is time to move on and take the next step.
Even if the expert commentary is not scientific enough, much of the imagery speaks for itself. Some of the footage is generic – crowds crossing the street in New York and Tokyo, kids running down alleys in Mumbai, waterfalls and forests.
But some is extraoardinary, particularly the scenes from space research. The film opens with images from the Apollo moon mission and the celebrations and reactions on Earth, and moves into shots and video taken from the International Space Station and space shuttle fleet, accompanied by comments from some crew members.
Many of these images are powerful enough to convince you of the film’s message. Vistas of sunrises, lighted cities and auroras flickering below are haunting and breathtaking – they set a tone of wonder and beauty.
All this is backed by slow, choral, orchestral music that give Planetary a languid mood. Even the collected scientists and mystics talk in low, reverent tones that suit the aesthetic.
It is more a love letter to an idea and a possible future than a traditional documentary that does research, develops a thesis and presents a position.
And among the scenes of great beauty and messages of hope, the film is still an urgent call to arms. It is not about fiddly details like taxing carbon emissions or investing in wind farms. Planetary takes a long view about how our whole way of living has to shift, and that means right down to the individual. We must call upon the same sense of world-building possibility that set us on this path in the first place.
Drew Turney is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.
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