Like “Baraka” or “Koyaanisquatsi” with a scholarly/preachy commentary track, Guy Reid’s “Planetary” is equal parts stunning cinematic picture book and worthy if somewhat overreaching lecture on the imperiled state of Mother Earth. Some viewers may be turned off a bit by the talking-head experts’ eventual shift from scientific to more spiritual matters. Those who prefer their eco-consciousness delivered with a drop (or a full draught) of New Age-iness will have a new favorite movie.
A most impressive logistical and aesthetic feat for the first-time feature filmmaking team, “Planetary” had a single-date release at venues scattered around the globe on (of course) Earth Day, April 22. While it’s not necessarily too late for correction, it’s a pity that the pic otherwise bypassed theaters, going straight to VOD via Vimeo: D.p. Christoph Ferstad’s frequently ravishing widescreen images rep a bigscreen experience if ever there was one.
It’s not his camera, however, that dominates the vivid initial section. Instead, vintage NASA footage accompanies the reminiscences of astronauts, from Apollo missions to recent space-station years, as they relate their first experience of seeing the Earth from an external remove. For many, it was a revelation of mankind’s small role in the overall scheme of things — not in a depressing way, but rather in the sense of realizing the totality of our planet as an extraordinary environment in which all life is interconnected and interdependent.
But as a roster of climate experts and others attest, that perspective head-butts the one that has shaped “civilization” for centuries. Instead, man too often views Nature as a bank to be endlessly withdrawn from at his convenience. It’s only recently that the finiteness of our resources — and the negative impacts of their exploitation — has become glaringly obvious, at least to some.
Yet destructive “progress” marches on, despite all evidence of imminent crisis. Fanning out to encompass a range of ideas beyond its original inspiration in physicist Peter Russell’s book “The Golden Brain,” “Planetary” spends little time on the specifics of global warming and such, assuming viewers are already savvy about such issues. Instead, it gradually moves toward a more philosophical call for change in how individuals and societies view themselves — as participants in, rather than consumers of, a unique and fragile ecosystem.
As the academic talking heads morph into Eastern and indigenous Western spiritual guides, yoga instructors, etc., “Planetary” may grow a tad too woo-woo for some. While the message is undoubtedly, earnestly important, the quasi-narrative arc, which grows ever vaguer as it moves from fact to faith, can feel somewhat ungainly here — more so, perhaps, than it would have in a film that stuck closer to one pole or another. The soft landing on a general note of “Be mindful” lends all the spectacular images (duly shot in various remote and crowded locations worldwide) less cumulative gravity than a more straightforward call to protesting action might have.
Still, those are some mightily beautiful pictures. Eschewing the strictly stationary shot (with or without time-lapse) that provided a visual signature on Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke’s wordless travelogues, Ferstad utilizes graceful camera movements, as well as (from other contributing lensers) much impressive aerial and some underwater photography.
Despite all the globe-encircling eye candy, there’s a certain monotony of pacing imposed by the nonstop spoken input of various elders whose wisdoms seldom come in anything chewier than (at most) paragraph-length soundbytes. Their incessant audio intel perhaps necessitates that Human Suits’ original score be both continuous and all too easy to ignore as anything more than a respectable backdrop.