Movie Reviews

Directed by Chris Smith
Now playing on Comcast On-Demand and in limited theatrical release.

Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

For a documentary that alleges to be about a radical thinker, the ideas presented in “Collapse” seemed remarkably conventional.  

Or this could just be me trapped in a journalist/intellectual reality warp. I’ve been familiar with the oil supply crash scenario that forms the heart of Michael Ruppert’s analysis for so long that I assume everyone thinks about this stuff. There have been books and documentaries about this coming out for years: “The End of Oil,” “A Crude Awakening,” “Hubbert’s Peak,” etc.

Ruppert is a former Los Angeles police officer who left the force in 1977 after charging that the CIA had attempted to recruit him to sell drugs. Over the next 30 years Ruppert acted as an independent investigative journalist via his newsletter, “From the Wilderness.” He speaks of breaking stories on the friendly-fire death of former NFL star Pat Tillman while with the Army Rangers in Afghanistan and, most famously, predicting the financial crisis in great detail back in 2005.

The dramatic tension here is over the question of whether Ruppert is a crackpot or a seer. The problem is that we never really get to find out. This 82-minute documentary consists mainly of Ruppert sitting in a chair and talking. For those of us not familiar with his work, we don’t get enough detail to actually judge his output.

I don’t necessarily fault Ruppert, but director Chris Smith. Smith has a couple of excellent documentaries to his credit—“American Movie” and “Yes Men”—but this time he trades in his more natural handheld camera, follow-the-action style for an interview format more associated with the famed Errol Morris (“Fog of War”). Smith, it appears, doesn’t quite know how to edit his material like Morris does, and I left with the feeling that Ruppert could have made a better case.

That case goes like this. Worldwide oil production is peaking right about now. Our current economic ups and downs are really just the “bumpy plateau” that comes just before the great fall. Oil production can’t keep up with the economy and prices go up, then economic output falls and oil demand drops until prices stabilize, then we repeat in a zig-zag pattern that will likely last years.

But at some point soon, well within most of our lifetimes, production never recovers, instead dropping at a precipitous 9 percent a year. Money increasingly becomes worthless because “there isn’t the energy to back it up.” The overleveraged financial and derivative markets crash in a way the make the last year look like a minor stumble. While wind and solar can provide some cushion, they won’t replace oil. Even electric cars contain so much oil they will no longer be viable. The oil-dependent agriculture system will falter, further buffeted by climate disruption.

Soon, the world economy will collapse, war and unrest will overtake the globe—and there’s not much Barack Obama or anyone else can do about it. Most chilling is the graph Ruppert shows of world population, which rose at a near-vertical line not long after the oil age began in the 1850s. When the oil age ends, he said, that line will fall back down, from something above today’s 6.5 billion back to somewhere closer to where it was before oil came on the scene—fewer than 1.5 billion people.
At the risk of sounding cynical, this is pretty pedestrian stuff in some circles. All these ideas have been talked about for years, most paying homage to work first done by oil expert M. King Hubbert back in the 1950s. I’m not sure if these ideas are well-accepted in the mainstream, but Ruppert and others argue that those in power are well aware of them. They’re the only scenario under which the decision to invade Iraq makes any sense, he notes.

I watched this with my friend Ed, who disagreed, noting: “His views, while not new, are quite on the fringe, at least compared to what I’m finding these days in mainstream media. For the average viewer I don’t think the views would be familiar.”

We both liked Ruppert’s delivery, finding him a compelling speaker. He also has a knack for drawing together many different threads, especially the clash of economic theory into the immovable object of thermodynamic reality, and layering them into a compelling picture. “Collapse” is at its best when Ruppert goes into detail (or Smith lets him). For instance, climate change doesn’t play a major role in his scenario, except for an intense description how melting tundra is going to make it impossible to ship out most of ANWAR’s oil. At too many other times, the film verges into vague calls from Ruppert to humanity to “wake up” and “evolve.”

The film is also a poignant portrait of a lonely, aging man who has dedicated his life to yelling “from the wilderness.” There is little discussion of people around him, whether coworkers, friends or family. He has few words of advice on how to survive what’s coming—buy gold, grow crops, but don’t try to buy land in the country because you’re liable to be “shot by those who are already there.” But his own life is brightened mainly by walking his dog around Culver City and seeing how many people he can get to smile back at him. In the end Ruppert makes a compelling case for the problem. But for society, and for himself, it may be long past the time for any real solutions.

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