Plastic Planet
Directed by Werner Boote

Ever since An Inconvenient Truth lit up the box office back in 2006, we’ve been treated to a slew of independently financed environmental documentaries that investigate specific problems facing the natural world.  Want to learn more about our depleted supplies of fresh drinking water?  Check out 2008’s Flow.  Concerned about the oil industry’s less-than-noble business practices overseas?  Track down 2009’s Crude.  And how about the dangers posed by natural gas drilling?  Try Josh Fox’s Gasland from last year.  One warning: avoid watching these films back to back, lest you come away convinced that we’re all doomed and devote the next few months of your life to constructing a bunker to house stockpiles of fresh water, canned foodstuffs and battery-powered electronics.

As its title implies, the latest entry in this new non-fiction genre concerns the prevalence of plastic products in our daily life.  Working in the vein of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, director Werner Boote frames his argument as a personal story, opening the film with home movies depicting him playing with his grandfather, who worked for one of Europe’s top plastics companies and brought their wares—particularly the latest toys—home for the young boy to sample.  As an adult, Boote (who never specifies what he does for a living, but the press notes indicate that he’s been kicking around the European film industry in various capacities for the past two decades) sets out to explore the impact of his grandfather’s industry on the modern world.

Skipping around the globe—his stops include a plastic surgeon’s office in California, a toy manufacturer in China and a landfill in India—the director speaks to consumers, scientists and manufacturers about the possible dangers posed by plastic.  It goes without saying that the latter group generally waves off his concerns while the scientists strike a more alarmist tone, highlighting the dangers plastic poses to wildlife as well as to our own health.  As for the consumers, they aren’t entirely certain what to think—in several of his pit stops, Boote films a family emptying their house of everything containing plastic, which, of course, leaves them with very few possessions.  All express a certain measure of guilt about the amount of plastic stuff they own, but few seem willing to swear it off for good.  Which, to be honest, is perfectly understandable—I know I’d have a hard time parting from some of my plastic possessions, both small (handy sandwich-sized Tupperware container) and large (flat-screen TV and accompanying remote).

As an interviewer and guide, Boote is, thankfully, far less strident than Moore and, sadly, far less personable than Spurlock (though the Super Size Me director has worn out his welcome in his recent work).  The weakest scenes in the film are those where he tries to take a more active role in the proceedings, whether its grabbing a megaphone and shouting at visitors to a giant plastics trade show in Europe or badgering a public relations person at the Chinese factory that’s clearly having trouble understanding his accented English. Because he largely seems to have made up his mind about his subject at the start of the film, his interviews are noticeably slanted; he’s quicker to challenge the manufacturers on their claims, while allowing scientists to make their cases about the perils of plastic–some of which are quite convincing, others decidedly less so–without much argument.  Most environmental documentaries try to end on an upbeat note, offering moviegoers some firm suggestions for how they might be able to change their behavior and help the planet.  Plastic Planet pointedly doesn’t arrive at that kind of conclusion, perhaps because Boote realizes that asking the public to give up plastic entirely is a lost cause.  The best that he and the rest of us can hope for is improved manufacturing standards and more consumer awareness about the kinds of plastics we purchase.  Plastic Planet isn’t a particularly distinguished film, but it delivers a worthwhile message.  

Plastic Planet opens at New York’s Cinema Village theater today.  Visit the film’s official website to learn about additional playdates.