Review: ‘Pandora’s Promise’

Mark Lynas in "Pandora's Promise."

Not quite an H-bomb dropped on the environmentalist zeitgeist, "Pandora's Promise" does provoke those who have long opposed nuclear power to at least reconsider it.

Not quite an H-bomb dropped on the environmentalist zeitgeist, “Pandora’s Promise” does provoke those who have long opposed nuclear power to at least reconsider it, presenting its arguments in a green light, and asking the question: Can one be committed to the environment, and still be against nuclear power? Most issue docs are propaganda, and Robert Stone’s latest is a formidable sales pitch for nukes, yet the film’s points are well reasoned and urgent, and should attract viewers who have been drawn to the director’s earlier work(such as “Earth Days,” a history of the environmentalist movement). Auds, particularly on the smallscreen, may come away bewildered, but possibly persuaded.

The pic couldn’t be more timely, given the fight over fossil fuels (frackin, the BP disaster, etc.) and it notes a growing disillusionment with renewable energy sources: The amount of power that can be generated isn’t sufficient to meet the world’s needs, it relates; China and India are building rather removing coal-burning power plants; and oil and gas companies would like nothing more than to spend public money on wind and solar projects that still require oil and gas.

Into this morass Stone marches a veritable parade of internationally renowned environmentalists, all confessing an earlier blindness to the virtues of nuclear power, and evangelizing for it. A lot of what Stone puts onscreen, via subjects like Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger, Gwyneth Cravens and Richard Rhodes, is both serious and rueful; Stone himself has been an environmental activist through his movies, and “Pandora’s Promise” is one large mea culpa.

Most convincing, perhaps, is British journalist/activist Mark Lynas, who’s almost embarrassed by the way he now feels, which is that nuclear power is the only reasonable answer to global warming, and that the dangers associated with such noted disasters as Three Mile island and Chernobyl have been grossly exaggerated. (The pic maintains that the dangers of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi tsunami-related reactor disaster have been overstated, as well.)

Where Stone errs, even on behalf of his own argument, is in not including a single voice in opposition to nukes, even just for contrast, and in treating those who opposed nuclear power in the past as a bunch of brain-dead hippies. The juxtapositions created between his current-day subjects, with their up-to-date information, and people marching and singing against nukes in 1979, makes the latter look like idiots, when all they were doing was acting in good conscience. It’s not the best way to make a persuasive argument.

Regarding the science of the pro-nuclear debate, no one onscreen is less than convincing, and nothing in the end seems more benign than a twin-stacked breeder reactor; the viewer might almost come away thinking that what he or she needs in the morning is a healthy dose of nuclear radiation. But this is a zealotry issue, and Stone is a convert.

Some parts of the film are drily academic, but much of it is quite beautiful and artfully put together by the director — who also served as co-lenser, with Howard Shack — and by editor Don Kleszy.

Pandora's Promise

Documentary

Production

An Impact Partners presentation in association with Robert Stone Prods. (International sales: The Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Robert Stone, Jim Swartz, Susan Swartz. Executive producers, Dan Cogan, Eric Dobkin, J. Lynn, Gavin Dougan, Diana Dougan, Steve Kirsch, Ross Koningtein. Co-executive producers, Ray Rothrock, Peter Wagner. Directed, written by Robert Stone.

Crew

Camera (color), Stone, Howard Shack; editor, Don Kleszy; music, Gary Lionelli; sound designer, Coll Anderson. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (premieres), Jan. 18, 2013. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas, Michael Shellenberger, Gwyneth Cravens, Richard Rhodes, Charles Till, Len Koch.

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  1. Dan says:

    Thanks John, for reviewing Pandora’s Promise. After reading your review of Atomic States of America and in the past being anti nuclear myself, I wanted to see what you’d have to say to Stone’s rebuttal. After seeing Radio Bikini I could hardly believe Stone would make this movie, but after watching it, I’d have to say I’m a convert too.

    As for not having an opposing side in the documentary and making the anti nuclear movement look like idiots, my response would be… Well… We all were. Everyone who is pro nuclear now including me may have walked in those protests before reanalyzing the research. I’d say Pandora’s Promise is less of a point-and-laugh approach at the Auds, but a self reflection on previous beliefs.

    I love having my prior beliefs challenged in a film. It’s actually really satisfying to be convinced in favor of something when you were previously against it, or vice versa. That’s why I was a Libertarian and today I’m a fan of Elizabeth Warren, and why before I was anti-nuclear and today I am not.

    Great review, thanks.

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