Surviving Progress, Mathieu Roy and Harold Crook’s harangue against modern civilization, is Seeking a Friend for the End of the World for those who prefer their pre-apocalypse movies aggressively nihilistic. It’s a documentary whose central thesis reads thusly: The human race is fucked. Actually, that’s not totally fair. It supposes we could colonize another planet, or start genetically engineering all the things needed to sustain life on Earth—although we’d probably just mess that up, too.
So Surviving Progress isn’t exactly a how-to guide. Based on Ronald Wright’s cheekily titled book A Short History of Progress, the film is more interested in describing the handbasket that’s transporting us to hell. As you can probably guess, it’s being weaved from overpopulation, deforestation and greed. It’s all stuff anyone paying the least bit of attention to the world is already aware of, yet Roy and Crook treat it as some kind of revelation. A number of scientists and economists, including Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood and the mechanized voice of Stephen Hawking, line up to serve as a sort of doomsday chorus. Wright himself, wearing a black turtleneck and an air of self-satisfaction, pops up regularly. He classifies our conundrum as a “progress trap.” Culture, Wright argues, has evolved faster than our brains. “We are running 21st century software—our knowledge—on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50,000 years,” he says, hilariously, before adding, “We have to confront the possibility that the entire experiment of civilization is, in itself, a progress trap.”
Well, at least the
movie gives us pretty things to look at in between all the gloomy
handwringing. Roy and Crook buffer the talking heads with aerial pans
over big-city China and the Amazonian rainforest, balletic footage of
rockets exploding in space, blended images of amoebas fusing into
schools of fish and submerged statues, and static shots of monkeys
playing with blocks, which is always amusing. If only they’d offered
some solutions, too. The directors tack on an empty message of hope at
the end, essentially saying mankind will eventually get its shit
together, because solving problems is what we do—even though we’ve just
sat through 85 minutes of arguments to the contrary. It’s unconvincing.
All of it, really.
Critic’s Grade: C+
SEE IT: Surviving Progress opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.