Whether the glass is half full or half empty isn’t the point of the effervescent “Last Call at the Oasis”: It’s whether there’ll be anything in the glass at all. A sobering but somehow upbeat examination of the looming catastrophic global water shortage, Jessica Yu’s latest docu can be seen as the final installment in Participant Media’s Crisis Quartet — “An Inconvenient Truth” (climate), “Food, Inc.” (agriculture), “Waiting for Superman” (education) and now, a look at the Earth’s most precious, and perhaps most endangered, commodity. The film should fare as well as its predecessors: Everyone, after all, gets thirsty.
As she has in the past, helmer Yu (“In the Realms of the Unreal,” “Protagonist”) proves she can make exhilarating cinema out of unfilmable subjects, in this case water — i.e. its pollution, scarcity and commercialization. Although a considerable amount of time is, and must be, devoted to the interview subjects who provide so much of the pure information in the film (including Erin Brockovich, who revisits the water-poisoned town of Hinkley, Calif., made famous in the movie bearing her name), Yu also finds ways to make the subject visually engrossing: The opening credits sequence, a kind of aqueous ballet, is worth the trip to the theater.
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Although “Last Call at the Oasis” fits into the standard template of cautionary eco-movies — stimulating opening, litany of woe, optimistic what-you-can-do list — it makes wonderful visual use of all the deadly sins of water waste (car washes, lawn sprinkling, golf-course irrigation), especially as accompanied by Jeff Beals’ original score and the often ironic choices made by music supervisor Margaret Yen, who puts mischievously upbeat songs under scenes of looming environmental disaster. It doesn’t dilute the impact of the story, and it’s certainly fun.
Still, much of the pic’s data is disquieting. The information imparted by Yu’s principal interviewees, who include Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, author Robert Glennon (“Unquenchable”) and the delightfully glum hydrologist Jay Famiglietti (his most memorable line: “We’re screwed”) certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the topic, or our future. At the rate the water behind the Hoover Dam is falling, it will stop producing electricity in four years. Las Vegas is in a virtual emergency state already. Australian livestock is dying or being killed for lack of water. And a deluge of pharmaceuticals — including one herbicide that can change the sex of frogs — is making its way into water systems nationwide. Behind the often spectacular landscape photography, and a parade of spectacularly intelligent people, is a crisis of biblical proportions.
“Last Call at the Oasis” does ebb and flow: After a riveting first chapter, the movie slows when it heads to Australia and later becomes more focused on specific problems and subjects. Brockovich, for instance, is given an inordinate amount of time, while more might have been afforded Tyrone Hayes, a U. of California, Berkeley, biologist who’s studied the effects and pervasiveness of Atrazine, the frog-sex drug.
Among those coming in for a hosing in the pic include former VP Dick Cheney, whose “Halliburton Loophole” allowed his favorite company to avoid reporting the chemicals used in water-driven “fracking,” which splits rock to gain access to fossil fuels; the public clamor for bottled water; and the Environmental Protection Agency for its lack of regulation to foster clean drinking water.
The situation may be dire, but “Last Call at the Oasis” is not averse to being entertaining and funny to deliver its message, apocalyptic as it unmistakably is: If people are going to put their heads in the sand, there’s going to be a lot of it around.
Production values are tops, notably the music, the editing by Kim Roberts and the work of d.p. Jon Else.