Sometimes the best docs start when the filmmakers go off course, when the wheel is grabbed by their subject and driven elsewhere. As “Collapse” tells us, the filmmakers were set to interview Michael Huppert, a former LAPD officer and detective, once CIA whistleblower and now peak-oil evangelist, about his former bosses in the government. “He had other things on his mind,” the caption says.
Huppert’s mind expands into 75 minutes of riveting monologue, assuaged by animated graphs and public-domain film footage from the 1950s — all eye candy, breaking down how the downslope of the peak oil bell curve will change life on Earth as we know it. He warns about the human race’s rush toward suicide, and would like to stop us, if only we’d listen.
And skeptical or not, we do. The camera in “Collapse” approaches Huppert — chain smoking and chatting under a single light — like one would circle an insistent intellectual or a slightly crazed co-worker in a bar. So much of what he says makes sense, but can it all really be true? Are we all doomed? “What if he’s wrong?” we ask, only to be followed by, “Oh my God, what if he’s right?” So we keep listening.
During a month where untold millions of gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, potentially ending ecosystems and livelihoods for an unforeseeable amount of time, Huppert’s thesis about peak oil feels more prescient than ever.
Not only do we use gas to power cars and airplanes, but oil is the base for all our plastics, all our pharmaceuticals, our entire infrastructure. When Huppert was interviewed, many of his past predictions had come true, including the sub-prime mortgage debacle and the tanking of the markets. But when it comes to peak oil, his thoughts, which are nothing new among the government agencies who refuse to discuss them, may be catching on elsewhere.
Filmmaker Chris Smith wisely let Huppert just talk, though we are never sure how much he and his editor may have shaped a rambling discussion into this tight, cohesive essay.
Smith is not shy about playing devil’s advocate; when Huppert avoids a question, Smith presses him again. He isn’t starstruck by Huppert, but he doesn’t dismiss or ridicule him either.
And anyway, he says, two nations already have gone without oil: North Korea and Cuba. Both lost oil when the Soviet Union fell. North Korea, he says, starved — the full extent of which we in the West still don’t know — but Cuba urged all its citizens to start farming.
And this is what Huppert suggests for us, along with an emotional plea for community. Holing up in a cabin in the woods with a stockpile of tinned food and weaponry is not the way out, he says.
“Collapse” will send you out of the theater a bit sweaty palmed, only slightly hopeful for the survival of the human race and in wonder what we’re all doing as you sit behind the wheel, waiting to leave the parking lot.
He may just be right.
Length: 82 minutes
Playing: 7:30 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall