Movie Reviews

Written and directed by Josh Tickell
Opens Oct. 23 at The Crest, 1013 K St.

We drove my girlfriend’s diesel Volkswagen to Montana this summer on vacation. Since all diesel engines can run on biodiesel (something this film reminds you of several times) we decided to do an experiment to see if we could get there and back entirely on biodiesel.

It didn’t happen. We started out with two lists off the Internet showing dozens of biodiesel stations near the looped route we took. Most were closed, or no longer sold biodiesel.

This is one of many stories Josh Tickell tells in “Fuel.” The “Veggie Van Guy” of Sarasota, Florida, spent a decade promoting biodiesel as a cleaner alternative to gas, only to watch it almost all disappear in a flurry of bad publicity following a March 2008 Time Magazine story called “The Clean Energy Scam.”

Tickell tends to see the collapse of the biodiesel market as a conspiracy—perhaps even the continuation of a century-old conspiracy. He recounts the mysterious death of Rudolph Diesel, who invented what remains the world’s most popular engine a century ago with the idea that it would run on plant-based fuels, not oil. The description of Diesel’s 1913 drowning while  taking a steamer to London was followed by an insidious-looking photo of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller—also a major proponent of Prohibition, which pretty well destroyed the competing biofuels market in the early days of the car industry.

If Tickell tends to see conspiracies, though, it might be understandable. He grew up in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” an area with some of the highest concentrations of oil refineries in the world. His mother had nine miscarriages. Some of the most shocking scenes in “Fuel” show the environmental destruction caused by the oil industry in the area, even before Hurricane Katrina made it much worse.  
As he puts it in the section of the film about the problems with biofuels, “Do people really know how bad oil is?” “Fuel” goes into great detail about the many problems with an oil-based economy and transportation system. This includes one of the more frank discussions I’ve seen of “Peak Oil,” the little-known but incredibly scary moment—which we have probably already passed—when world oil supplies go into permanent decline.

He follows this with an equally-frank dissection of the current state of biofuels, which he admits aren’t perfect. While corn ethanol is basically a waste of time, biodiesel fuel already returns enough energy out of the initial investment to make it worthwhile. Then he goes into the potential of algae-based biolfuels, an idea shown off when Tickell and others visited Sacramento last month. Started with a $25 million grant from the Jimmy Carter administration, he envisions a future where oil-producing algae are grown next to power plants, eating the excess carbon. The result could be cheap, plentiful and carbon-neutral.

What might be most notable about “Fuel” is how upbeat the tone is despite all the depressing images and statistics. The situation is bad, “Fuel” tells us, but many of the solutions are already well-known.

Directed by David Bowers
“Astroboy” makes an interesting contrast to “Fuel,” in that it’s a far-future tale whose central story involves the eternal human dream of a source of free, clean power. The plot is set in motion by the discovery of “good” blue energy and “bad” red energy, though both sources or so stable you can touch them with your hands and also powerful beyond our wildest dreams.

But this theme quickly moves to the background, replaced by a more familiar set of tropes about identity and belonging. “Astroboy” is a kids’ movie at heart. It lacks the sophisticated humor of so many animated movies of recent years, which try to give the adults in the audience something to have fun with.

The tone here is earnest, not ironic. This fits the characters’ beginnings. In his native Japan, Astroboy is nearly as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, and nearly as old, having first appeared in 1951. The themes as “Astroboy” are familiar to any science fiction fan, covering some of the same ground as “Blade Runner,” “Wall-E,” “The Matrix,” “RoboCop,” and “A.I.”

“Astroboy” starts off with a precocious little science genius named Toby, bored in school and impatient with the robot who waits on him hand and foot. They live in a floating city above an earth whose ecosystem has been mostly killed off and buried in trash.

But while this is a kids’ film, with the plot tending more towards colorful action as things move along, it also has some darker elements than many kids’ films. To tell the most significant of these would give away too much plot. But the trashed earth and a bad guy who is willing to cause essentially unlimited “collateral damage” make for film that doesn’t gloss over much. It was also interesting to see a kids’ movie multiple characters who were truly morally ambiguous, with both good and bad traits.  

In the end, the kids seemed to like this one more than the adults. Which was fine, especially since the mayhem was actually mixed with a few things for young minds to think about.

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