Leonardo DiCaprio wants you to know that we are in serious trouble. No amount of artful chin stubble, it seems, will reverse the depletion of fossil fuels or help to slow population growth. Not even three Oscar nominations will save you—without an actual statuette, there’s nothing to wedge under the door when the coastal floodwaters inevitably start a-risin’. No, my friends, the time has come for serious action, and that means traveling to various picturesquely doomed locations in order to make direct-to-camera entreaties straight out of one of those Sally Struthers famine-relief PSAs.
A cautionary eco-doc so earnest and moth-eaten it should properly be seen on filmstrip during fourth-period social studies, The 11th Hour might as well have borrowed the title of Lisa Simpson’s lecture about the pollution of Lake Springfield: “An Irritating Truth.” DiCaprio’s bona fides as an environmentalist are beyond reproach—he launched his own foundation in 1998, immediately after Titanic made him an icon—and it’s certainly not his fault that the American public prefers its spinach served by the hottest and most glamorous waiters available. But good intentions and strapping deltoids aren’t a license to hector, and DiCaprio’s presence in this film (on which he’s also credited as a producer) is so dourly humorless that even Gore 2000 looks effortlessly charismatic by comparison. Judging from his constant expression of grim discomfort, Leo is reluctant to consume more oxygen than is strictly necessary to preserve consciousness.
Even if you were in the mood to be harangued by “Madame Tussaud’s Presents Leonardo DiCaprio,” you’d want the courtesy of a startling, thought-provoking thesis. Or, failing that, you’d at least want to be presented with a handful of facts that you don’t already know. Or, failing that, at the very least you’d demand an innovative and entertaining means of conveying the basic, well-documented woe-is-us information that you do already know. Instead, The 11th Hour assumes you have no idea that the rain forests are shrinking, the Arctic ice shelves collapsing, the planet’s oil reserves dwindling, the Yankees floundering. From start to finish, the film offers nothing more than a litany of pamphlet-ready factoids, unencumbered by the anecdotal wit that made Gore’s stats on global warming halfway palatable onscreen. It’s as if someone today had made a blunt, sober, 90-minute documentary explaining in laborious, unimpeachable detail exactly why smoking cigarettes—no, really—is bad for your health.
Still, dazzling style can redeem even the creakiest, most ostensibly pointless material. Which is why it’s almost poignant, in a pathetic way, to see directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen—whose previous combined film experience is limited to a couple of eco-shorts made for DiCaprio’s website—proceed as if the doc revolution of the last decade or so never happened. In time-honored PBS-snooze fashion, they assembled a squadron of learned talking heads, sat each one down in undistractable blackness, and then simply let them burble about their specialty, livening things up every so often with illustrative archival footage. Superimposed credentials sprout like fungi: Professor of Conservation Ecology, Duke University; President & Founder, Tree People; International Chair, Inuit Circumpolar Conference. I’m sure these are very nice folks doing excellent work on behalf of Gaia, but in isolated sound bites, they come across like monomaniacal dweebs. And since there are 54 of them to get through, isolated sound bites is all The 11th Hour can manage.
Perhaps all this sincere clunkiness could be forgiven if the film somehow managed to send you back onto the street outraged and/or chastened, seeking ways to make a difference. But while the final reel is awash in hypothetical, computer-animated solutions to various impending catastrophes, and you’re urged to visit Leo’s website for more information, the prevailing mood, contrary to its makers’ intentions, is one of forlorn hopelessness. In part, that’s because The 11th Hour, in an uncharacteristic hiccup of angry candor, briefly acknowledges—but then speedily skates past—the most relevant and damning issue of all: that the American public, which overwhelmingly supports environmental ethics, continues to torpedo its own best interests by electing politicians who are self-evidently beholden to corporate greed and sloth. Beneath all the hand-wringing about carbon emissions and biodiversity lies a simple question: Why do we vote for people who we know aren’t going to do anything we want them to? That heady subject could make a great documentary, but it’d require a filmmaker willing to put down the well-meaning agenda and venture forth armed only with a camera and sheer curiosity.