By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 17, 2015
Home, the visually stunning 2009 documentary film directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, is partly a biography of the planet Earth, partly a history of the human species and partly an environmental manifesto.
According to its promotional material, the movie was shot in 120 locations in 54 nations. The images, fittingly, seem to cover every environment on the planet, from arid desert to lush jungle to frozen landscape to artificial archipelago. At one moment narrator Glenn Close is discussing a city filled with skyscrapers; the next, seemingly, focus has shifted to a plain covered by nigh-identical suburban homes and the network of asphalt roads that serve the cars these communities require. Or perhaps we’re exploring the antithesis of these places — poverty-stricken urban sectors where electricity, food and clean drinking water are luxuries, not givens.
But more on that in a minute. Another thing that’s striking about Home is the movie’s varying time scales. The movie begins by describing events in terms of thousands of millennia. The age of the Earth, for instance, is about 4.5 billion years. The first organisms began appearing a few hundred million years after that.
In Home’s first 20 minutes or so, Close’s commentary — co-written by Arthus-Bertrand, Isabelle Delannoy and Tewfik Fares — touches upon the complex chains of physical, chemical and biological interactions that led to the planet we have today. Here’s an excerpt, borrowed from this unofficial transcript of the movie, describing a life form that first appeared on Earth after four billion years:
Trees defy gravity. They are the only natural element in perpetual movement toward the sky. They grow unhurriedly toward the sun that nourishes their foliage. They have inherited from these miniscule cyanobacteria the power to capture light’s energy. They store it and feed off it, turning it into wood and leaves, which then decompose into a mixture of water, mineral, vegetable and living matter.
And so, gradually, soils are formed. Soils teem with the incessant activity of micro-organisms, feeding, digging, aerating and transforming. They make the humus, the fertile layer to which all life on land is linked.
Shortly after this, Home switches time frames — instead of billions of years, the operative scale becomes thousands of years. Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared on the scene 200,000 years ago; began forming permanent residences about 20,000 years ago; began cultivating crops less than 10 millennia in the past. The film reminds us that a quarter of humanity still lives much as our ancestors did 6,000 years ago, raising crops and cattle without benefit of electricity.
As for the rest of us? Here Home introduces a note of urgency into the narrative. When humans learned how to exploit fossil fuels — coal, gas and especially oil — they radically altered their lives, acquiring previously unimaginable riches and comforts. Suddenly, the film’s operative time scale become’s decades: “[I]n 50 years, in a single lifetime, the Earth has been more radically changed than by all previous generations of humanity,” Close announces.
A wealth of evidence follows. The planet’s population has nearly tripled over the past 60 years. Deforestation has reduced the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, by a fifth in just four decades. A vast forest covered most of Borneo, the world’s fourth-largest forest, 20 years ago; this habitat could be completely destroyed in another decade if current exploitation continues. The polar ice caps have shrunk by 40 percent in 40 years.
The filmmakers show us startling images to back up Close’s narration. (Arthus-Bertrand, a veteran French documentarian, and his above-mentioned team of writers also got visual story-telling input from Denis Carot and Yen Le Van.) We see a Canadian coast guard cutter cruising through an area that would have been solid ice just years before. We see parts of Haiti where the hills have been stripped of most of their vegetation due to the quest for charcoal — an activity which has devastated the vast majority of that nation’s forests. We see hills in Madagascar that have collapsed due to deforestation. We see a vast Nigerian slum overshadowed by an immense oil processing facility.
There are certainly a few faults to be found in the film. Armand Amar’s original score occasionally takes on a bombastic aspect, suggestive of propaganda. There are also a handful of instances where the film employs what is surely computer imagery (in one case, to illustrate the shrinkage of the ice caps); these aren’t labeled, but they certainly should be. Close also mispronounces “climatic” as “climactic” at least twice, there’s an erroneous reference to the location of the Grand Canyon and the advent of cities is mislabeled (it wasn’t 600 years ago).
What I find discouraging about Home isn’t these issues, all of which are minor. It’s that the movie, made in 2009, has had so little impact on the debate over the exploitation of natural resources, environmentalism and climate change. If anything, conservative resistance to engaging directly and honestly with issues germane to that last topic has strengthened since President Obama took office, shortly before this documentary was released.
So while I criticize Home for emotionally overplaying its hand, I suspect that future historians (and media critics) will wonder why it understated the threat our species — virtually every Earthly species — is facing.
Home ends on a cautiously upbeat note, describing a number of initiatives that are intended to reduce humanity’s harmful impact on the planet. But I can’t help but thinking of a part of the movie that precedes that, in which Close mentions that Siberia’s melting permafrost threatens to unleash an immense quantity of methane. Such an event, Close says:
would cause the greenhouse effect to race out of control with consequences no one can predict. We would literally be in unknown territory.
Humanity has no more than 10 years to reverse the trend and avoid crossing into this territory.
More than six years have passed since those words were written and recorded. Even so, few people seem to be treating this threat with the urgency it deserves. That’s a pretty sobering — if not outright frightening — thought.