“Meat the Future” is a slightly goofy title for a film that takes its subject very, very seriously. The wordplay feels like a token flourish of whimsy in Liz Marshall’s quietly educational documentary about the rise of alternative, environmentally friendly but still animal-based meat, as if to gently beckon carnivorous viewers who might be expecting a dour lecture. That isn’t on the cards here, however. “Meat the Future” unfolds as a thorough and persuasive presentation for a cutting-edge product that it wants us to start thinking about in normalized terms; it’s got too much to explain and advocate to leave much time for moral repudiation. “Clean meat,” as cell-grown protein has been branded by the scientists developing it, is the future; Marshall’s doc treats the present as a formality to be politely put behind us.
Selected to premiere as a special presentation at Hot Docs — and currently streaming as part of the Toronto-based festival’s online edition — this smoothly assembled, information-led doc should transfer easily to television slots and VOD platforms, where it’ll connect with general audiences who may have encountered the subject of slaughter-free meat via buzzword-heavy magazine articles, but haven’t got into the chewier details. It gives us an amiable, reassuring guide in the form of Dr. Uma Valeti, an Indian-born cardiologist turned CEO of trailblazing “clean meat” startup Memphis Meats, who is quick to clarify what his passion product is not: It’s not, he insists, “lab-grown,” “cloned,” “in vitro,” or any of the more daunting, clinical terms thrown around by advocates of more traditional butchery.
What it is is at once elegantly simple and kind of mind-blowing: “at the edge of human knowledge,” one Memphis Meats scientist claims, in a rare moment of hyperbolic extravagance. With equivalent tissue-engineering techniques to those used in regenerative medicine, scientists effectively cultivate flesh from the cells of living animals, resulting in a product allegedly closer in taste and texture to traditional meat than any plant-based alternative — which is hardly surprising given the biological roots of it all, except that this technology results in no animal death or waste. Marshall doesn’t glide through these nitty-gritties as if dispensing with the “the science part” in a shampoo commercial: Rather, the better part of the film is given over to Valeti and his colleagues’ repeated explanations and illustrations of how the sausage, so to speak, is made.
This may not be the stuff of exhilarating cinema, but neither is it dull. “Meat the Future” is a substance-over-style doc that manages the rare trick of being at once dry and rather engrossing: Over 90 minutes, its methodical, explicatory approach affords viewers of various dietary persuasions ample space to consider their own gastronomic preferences, preconceptions and prejudices. Marshall, who established her eco-doc credentials with 2013’s crowdpleasing animal-rights study “The Ghosts in Our Machine,” isn’t out to break a rhetorical sweat arguing us into a position: Like the smiling, soft-spoken Dr. Valeti, she provides enough facts — and yes, in brief, horrifying footage from vast American factory farms, just enough of an emotional tug — for us to argue ourselves there.
A handful of opposing views are introduced via footage from a combined FDA and USDA conference on the future branding of “clean meat,” prompted by protests from traditional livestock farmers that the miracle product shouldn’t legally be permitted to use the m-word at all. Representatives from various American cattlemen’s associations — many of them amusingly attired to type in Stetson hats and fringe jackets — say their piece, but the film doesn’t work up an argumentative head of steam. Between the cool, pale tones of its camerawork and graphics and the measured, conversational rhythm of its editing, “Meat the Future” aims for the same air of high-road calm as the burgeoning industry it depicts.
Still, one does wish for a slightly wider, more colorful range of perspectives here. We’re treated to the impressed responses of various scientists and journalists as they chow down on cultivated meatballs, duck cutlets and “clean” but enticingly greasy fillet of fried chicken — but the film misses a trick by not getting any restaurateurs or food personalities to weigh in on its merits. Where “clean meat” fits into a world increasingly drawn toward plant-based cuisine, meanwhile, is another intriguing avenue that goes unexplored: Surely the thoughts of an expert vegan advocate or two would further test and enrich the film’s compelling case for kinder carnivorousness.