The worst form of purity-test liberalism
News flash: people pollute the earth. Also: anyone who wants to clean up the earth but works with big corporations is clearly an asshole. That first statement is, overwhelmingly, settled science. The second is reactionary bullshit. Planet of the Humans trades in the worst form of purity-test liberalism, where green-energy enthusiasts are hypocrites and anyone who supports them is really just in deep denial about the endemic intransigence of the fossil-fuel industry.
PLANET OF THE HUMANS ★(1/5 stars)
Directed by: Jeff Gibbs
Running time: 100 min
Michael Moore executed produced this sad-sack screed, the filmmaking debut of writer/director/producer Jeff Gibbs. Who’s that? One of Moore’s longtime co-producers and also an occasional music composer. It’s lovely that Moore is helping out his colleague and also backing a film that bucks conventional wisdom. But don’t expect anything close to the sort of professionalism or rigor that Moore brings to his filmmaking, and I say that knowing full well Moore’s documentaries aren’t renowned for their professionalism or rigor.
Moore’s movies are satire-adjacent cinematic crusades, op-ed non-fictions that pull pranks and stretch facts like Silly Putty to make his caricaturist Big-Truth statements. He’s a gag-driven provocateur. His schtick, for those who like him, is charmingly unpolished. But Gibbs’ product is really full-on amateur-hour stuff. Redundantly argued, hilariously morose, sloppily pieced together, barely mixed, the film feels like a rough cut in need of strong editorial hands and some serious post-production finishing funds. I’m surprised the lo-res archival footage doesn’t have watermarks and reference time code plastered everywhere.
The gist of Gibbs’ argument boils down to this: green energy isn’t really green. Alternative initiatives like solar panels, wind farms, and biomass require the world’s industrial infrastructure to build them. And that infrastructure runs on oil and coal. Also, renewable energy delivers intermittent power due to inherently inconsistent natural sources like sunlight and wind. And that means they require fossil-fuel baseload plants to keep the electricity steady.
The film’s co-producer is environmentalist academic Ozzie Zehner, and both Gibbs and Zehner point out alarming facts about the modern-day totems we take as virtuous. Some wind turbines only last 20 years, yet require 800 yards of concrete, 140 tons of resteel, and fiberglass blades weighing 36,000 lbs each. An impressive-looking field of solar panels in Lansing, Michigan only generates enough power for 10 homes annually. One famous photovoltaic array built 40 years ago in Daggett, California basically fell apart over time. It’s now a solar dead zone. “We’re being fed a lie,” says Gibbs, in one of many droning narration lines he delivers with a sort of uninflected synthetic AI cadence. This guy is so low-energy he makes HAL sound like Jim Carrey.
So, what’s the corrective? Hold on—Planet of the Humans isn’t done yet. Look at the solar festival in Vermont that’s actually running off the power grid. Look at Elon Musk’s Tesla Gigafactory, which claims to be carbon-neutral but is also connected to the grid system. Or the Ivanpah Solar Array in the Mojave Desert, which burns natural gas in the morning for hours just to get it up and running.
Geez, that’s really awful. So what’s the answer? Waitaminute. Gibbs has some more Debbie-Downer revelations in Planet of the Humans. Rechargeable batteries degrade over time and are manufactured with toxic rare-earth minerals! The Koch brothers make solar panels! Al Gore cashed in on his Current TV holdings by selling to the oil-soaked Arabs! Bill McKibben, longtime Grand Poobah of the environmental movement, is a phony who takes corporate donations! The Sierra Club is full of poseurs! Billionaires like Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg are greedy opportunists who are only in it for the money! “They are not our friends,” he says about the rich. Full disclosure: my wife works for Bloomberg Philanthropies. So activist readers, feel free to stop reading right now. I sleep with the devil.
OK, Gibbs, point made. Now what? Care to offer some correctives? Any solutions? Hello? Bueller? Bueller? Crickets. Well, at the end, he does share this broad, bland, vague pearl of wisdom: “Less must be the new more.” And then adds, “If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible.” Like what? What do we do? Never mind, he’s too busy editing down Robert Kennedy’s nuanced answer about biomass viability to make him look curt and evasive.
Planet of the Humans makes some devastating revelations about the compromises and contradictions in the green-energy industry. Then again, it is an industry. Is it really so surprising that, in order to scale up the efficacy of alternative power, companies need to use the resources of an industrial infrastructure that runs on oil and coal? Sure, that’s depressing. But it’s also the way of the world. Incremental improvements. Failed initiatives that hopefully lead to more innovation.
In very stark contrast to the far more fundamentally optimistic Michael Moore, Gibbs offers no way forward, no mission statement, no call to action. He never concedes that compromises are sometimes necessary in order to move forward. In the weeks since Planet of the Humans debuted for free on Earth Day, some media outlets have reported that a few of his Droopy-Dog pronouncements are misleading at best and downright libelous at worst. I’m no scientist or journalist, but I sure know the difference between a film that’s constructive criticism and one that’s just a strident harangue.