Sizzle: A lukewarm global warming film

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Sizzle, the new documentary by Flock of Dodos creator Randy Olson, describes itself as “a movie you’ll feel passionate about (even if you don’t know why).” This description is particularly apt, although perhaps not in the way that the team behind the film expected.

Randy Olson is concerned. An Inconvenient Truth was a great film but there are still hordes of people who deny human activities are changing the world’s climate and reputable climate scientists seem nowhere to be found. He decides to set off on an admirable quest to find the top climatologists and find out what they have to say about anthropogenic climate change. There’s just one problem; no one cares. Scientists are boring, and who would want to watch a old professors drone on for two hours?

Fortunately for Randy’s fictionalized self, two producers are willing to help, although they’re not exactly on the same level (they figure Tom Cruise is a good person to interview because he’s a scientologist). What’s more, Randy’s camera and sound crew are global warming denialists who can’t keep their mouths shut, embarrassing Randy in front of the scientists and ingratiating themselves with the professionals who deny that global warming is real. This setup sounds pretty amusing, a film that can strike that all-too-rare balance of educating and entertaining at the same time, but sadly it falls far short of the mark.

In terms of the “mockumentary” side of the film, Sizzle is mostly reliant on black and homosexual cultural stereotypes for a few cheap laughs. The characters seem as deep as cardboard cutouts for much of the film, providing the weak connective tissue that is supposed to get the actors from one interview to another. It seems that most of the time the other characters are designed to frustrate and infuriate Randy, and by the time this changes in the final act it’s too little, too late. The fictional scenes aren’t satire like the incomparable This is Spinal Tap and feel somewhat artificial, each person having their own narrow role to play. Randy’s mother, Muffy Moose, also makes an appearance but it ends up being just another attempt at some cheap laughs (think the rapping granny from The Wedding Singer).

The documentary aspect of Sizzle, by contrast, suffers from a lack of focus. This isn’t always a fatal flaw; the global warming film Everything’s Cool had the same problem. But where Everything’s Cool offered a variety of perspectives on climate change, from someone trying to convert their engine to biofuel to a meteorologist on The Weather Channel, Sizzle can’t seem to make up it’s mind on what it wants to be. Randy opens the film by stating his mission to get top scientists to weigh in on global warming but this seems to be quickly forgotten. Two climate scientists are interviewed (with a few quick stops to see a polar bear specialist and a representative from the Natural Resource Defense Council), but around the one hour mark Randy offers a summary and says “on the global warming side it was almost like we didn’t really even need any interviews.” This is an awfully strange statement for someone who claims to have set out for the very purpose of talking to scientists about human-caused climate change!

Indeed, it is at this point that another statement comes entirely out of left field. Referring to his previous film, Flock of Dodos, Randy says that the two climate scientists he talked to are “handicapped by their blind obsession with the truth.” This statement is not explained or elaborated upon, although the pejorative nature of the comment introduces the viewer to a brief foray into science communication. During this part Randy takes on the role of the boring-as-toast scientist, wanting to present the audience with graphs and Power Point slides. There are some good ideas about science communication here, and as is revealed in a later segment those who interview scientists also have to ask the right questions.

The arrival of the last act comes with another gear shift, becoming more serious during a visit to the still storm-battered New Orleans. While this represents the best part of the film the connection to the rest is a little tenuous. At best it reveals that no nation is fully prepared to deal with natural disasters that will result from global climate change, and I have to give the filmmakers credit for noting that the potential link between global climate change and hurricanes is still poorly understood. (As a professional meteorologist once told me some of the weakest arguments being made about the consequences of global warming involve the formation of hurricanes. There’s still a lot that is unknown and there’s no simple “warmer water = more hurricanes” type equation.) While it would have been good to gain more of a global perspective, how climate change if affecting people in India or Africa, I do appreciate the point of the film is to get people in America motivated to do something. It’s not When the Levees Broke but the final act of the film is definitely the best.

The concept behind Sizzle had a lot of potential and unfortunately that potential was not fully realized. The interviews scattered throughout the film are interesting but the filler material is not funny nor insightful. The film tries to juggle too many concepts at once making it difficult to know precisely what the movie is about. The premise that is stated in the film, the quest for truth about global warming straight from scientists, is eventually abandoned and never fully resolved. I doubt that anyone will watch Sizzle and be convinced that global climate change is being caused by human activities. If the film is meant as a commentary on science communication there are a few good rough ideas present but they’re never really polished; they fleet by quickly and are dropped for a more dramatic final act in New Orleans. In a rising tide of competing ideas Sizzle just doesn’t manage to stay afloat.