Critics of Al Gore's global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth derided it as more like a videotaped lecture than an actual film, but what it lacked in cinematic style, it made up for in earnest scholarship. As if providing the overbearing yang to Gore's overly refined yin, The 11th Hour arrives as Inconvenient Truth's evil twin: a film that's so restlessly, numbingly cinematic that it can barely communicate its message. Viewers will disagree over the appropriateness of the movie's fear-mongering about the incipient environmental doomsday, based on their political predispositions, but either way, 11th Hour isn't likely to win any new converts with its oppressive style and dizzying barrage of fuzzy factoids.
Alongside sisters and first-time directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen, Leonardo DiCaprio co-wrote and produced the film, and he also appears onscreen to help deliver a running group monologue about the "convergence of crises" resulting from pollution, overfishing, erosion, soil depletion, exponential population growth, and other abuses of the environment. Over solemn, whispery music by Sigur Rós, Cocteau Twins, Coldplay, and Mogwai, some 50 talking heads—reporters, editors, scientists, lobbyists, advocates, psychologists, professors, doctors, and ringers like Mikhail Gorbachev and Stephen Hawking—pop onscreen to speak a sincere, intense line or three about environmental degradation, often over animated charts or graphics, or stock footage of Katrina floods or deforestation. In what becomes a weirdly manipulative routine, the film batters viewers with faces and voices, sights and sounds, and then DiCaprio steps in for a few quiet, sensible words, and things slow down to a comfortingly homey pace. He rapidly becomes the good cop to the rest of the film's bad-cop abuses, stepping in to let viewers catch their breath and to give them someone to identify with and root for.
That routine feels cheap and calculating, but it's a small sin for a movie that uses so many other irritating tactics, particularly the hectoring crowd of narrators, the broad, New Age-y appeals about drawing knowledge from the hurting Earth instead of controlling it, and all the vague, mushy "facts" like "We've lost 90 percent of most of the big fish in the sea." The problems are expressed loosely and frantically, and the solutions are just as vague: DiCaprio claims it's possible to reduce the human footprint on Earth by 90 percent, but most of the proposed ideas whisk by at high speed with no depth or explanations, just like everything else. The 11th Hour is slick and passionate, but neither persuasive nor helpful; it's a headache of a film directed like an Errol Morris project, but with half the substance. It's clearly preaching to the choir, but even they may find it off-key.