Sidestepping the usual eco-docu strategy (i.e., set up a desperate, end-of-the-world scenario and then yank the viewer in off the ledge), the global-energy movie “Switch” takes a far less hysterical route. Helmer Harry Lynch’s method is a bit like an alternating current: Explore one energy source at a time, examine its pros and cons, forecast its future effectiveness, and give a rational evaluation of where the world is heading. It isn’t sensational, but it is intelligent, and should be a draw to auds with green thoughts in scattered theatrical play.
Many of those viewers will likely be familiar with the rest of the recent eco-movie catalogue, so they’ll know where producer, co-writer and host Scott Tinker, a geologist and professor at the U. of Texas, Austin, either differs with or ignores the conclusions of other filmmakers. The content of Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated anti-fracking film “Gasland” and the wind-turbine terrors found in Laura Israel’s “Windfall” go all but unremarked; Tinker seems far more favorably inclined than many toward those particular sources of energy, and the words “strip mining” are never heard.
At same time, Tinker declines to give any alternative energy source a wholesale endorsement. The essence of “Switch” is that nothing in the offing — biofuels, geothermal energy, so-called “clean coal,” electric cars, wind power — will, by itself, solve the supply and pollution problems caused by non-renewable sources; the future will be an amalgam that requires creative thinking.
Tinker’s tack is to assess each power plant, oil refinery and wind field by how many people it would serve. It’s a sobering tactic: As 750,000-barrel oil tankers glide across the screen, we’re told that, given that Americans use 20 million barrels a day, each of those ships will satisfy one-30th of the nation’s daily need, or about 45 minutes of power. And it gets worse as the sources get greener.
Tinker and Lynch assemble a likable, highly knowledgeable roster of experts, including former Undersecretary of Energy Steve Koonin; Ernie Moniz, director of MIT’s Energy Initiative; coal innovator Steve Hedge; biofuel farmer Richard Lamotte; and various pioneers in non-petroleum technologies. “Switch” is ostensibly about the transition the world needs to make from old fuels to new, especially in light of the exploding economies of India and China — countries that, as everyone here readily admits, will have no inclination to stem pollution as they strive for First World status.
Ultimately, the film is no more optimistic about the world’s energy outlook than any other docu, but it’s considerably more honest, and manages to be quite effective without saying, “boo.”
Tech credits are tops, particularly the seamless editing by Yusef Svacina and David Rosenblatt, and the often beautiful photography of Lynch, Wilson Waggoner and their team of cameramen.