Less wake-up call than four-alarm fire, “Collapse” forces its audience to witness the testimony of Michael Ruppert, an independent writer and researcher who believes that everything — industrial civilization, at least — is falling apart, soon to vanish completely. In other words, it makes countless other political documentaries look like episodes of “Teletubbies.” Unnervingly persuasive much of the time, and merely riveting when it’s not, Ruppert’s talking-head analysis gets the Errol Morris treatment from director Chris Smith (“American Movie”), whose intellectual horror film ranks as another essential work, one well deserving of play in major cities — provided they’re still around.
To the extent that Smith’s apocalyptic docu doubles as a subtle character study of a flawed, if not tragic, individual, it isn’t necessary for one to buy all of Ruppert’s arguments in order to fall for “Collapse.” Neither does the film inevitably stand to divide an audience along typical party lines. Ruppert, a former LAPD officer who accused the CIA of involvement in ’80s-era drug-running, spreads his mistrust and disdain past the Bush administration into that of President Obama, whom he views as “imprisoned” by an archaic and doomed system of global capitalism.
The crux of Ruppert’s argument is that, in a world of rapidly depleting resources, market capital’s requisite promise of infinite growth has become a lie, particularly in the realm of oil, for which there’s no replenishing and no viable substitute. (“Clean” coal is a contradiction in terms, Ruppert says, and ethanol is a “joke.” Electricity, he says, requires oil.)
Ruppert, whose self-published newsletter predicted the current economic crisis more than four years ago, anticipates that when oil prices spike to the point that no one can afford to buy gas for the 800 million internal combustion-powered engines on Earth, “everything” will shut down — including mail delivery, air traffic control, highway maintenance, food production and distribution, and law enforcement. The insolvency of FDIC and the Federal Reserve Bank will follow close behind, he says.
In the marketplace of ideas, Ruppert sells his relentlessly bleak predictions to the viewer through darkly humorous metaphor. Survival of the fittest, he says, doesn’t require a tent-pitching camper to run faster than a marauding bear; it only requires him to run faster than the slowest camper.
That Ruppert, who lives with his beloved dog in Culver City, Calif., is currently behind on his rent and facing eviction is a haunting irony observed with characteristic calm by Smith in the closing credits. The documaker also catches his subject contradicting an earlier claim that his only responsibility is to himself. Eventually, the middle-aged, chain-smoking Ruppert — whose long drags on cigarettes amount to another picture of imminent collapse — concedes that he means to help humanity prepare for an event he predicts to be as cataclysmic as the asteroid crash that killed the dinosaurs. (The short version of his advice: Learn to grow your own food in clean soil.)
Smith, whose focus on the iconoclastic philosophies of eccentric workers goes back to his brilliant 1996 mock docu “American Job,” here adopts the style of Morris’ “The Fog of War,” interspersing Ruppert’s testimony with quirkily illustrative archival footage and layering on a swirling musical score (by Didier Leplae and Joe Wong) to help keep the viewer’s wheels turning. Andrew Reznik’s art direction places Ruppert in what looks like a cross between an art gallery and a bomb shelter, while the camerawork of Ed Lachman and Max Malkin performs a downward spiral around the subject as he talks and smokes.
Off-camera, Smith can be heard asking questions such as, “Aren’t you leaving out the possibility of human ingenuity?” What the director himself leaves out — to the benefit of Ruppert’s larger argument, perhaps — is mention of the man’s 9/11 conspiracy theories, not counting a brief shot of the author’s article, “9/11 and Insider Trading.”
The pic is credited as being based on Ruppert’s book “A Presidential Energy Policy,” whose commercial failure contributed to the author’s current economic collapse.