Is a glass half-full or forever empty?
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 11, 2012
Like its predecessors "An Inconvenient Truth," "Food, Inc." and "Waiting for 'Superman,'" the documentary "Last Call at the Oasis" represents nonfiction filmmaking at its most urgent, timely and stylistically smooth. As a lucid, emotionally involving portrait of the looming crisis surrounding water - supplies of which are dwindling as contamination rises - Jessica Yu's smartly constructed argument works less as a tutorial than as an infectiously impassioned call to arms.
Whether we should use those arms to turn on the tap or turn it off depends on which problem Yu and executive producer Elise Pearlstein are seeking to illuminate.
Beginning in Nevada (now the go-to geographic metaphor for American profligacy and greed), "Last Call at the Oasis" delivers the alarming news that if that city continues to irrigate its dancing fountains and casino tourists at current rates, the nearby Lake Mead will be depleted, rendering the Hoover Dam unable to generate electricity in four years. Next door in California, fishermen are fighting farmers in heated battles over the precious resource and whether to continue to water the Central Valley (where most of our produce is grown) or maintain a fragile marine ecosystem.
Meanwhile, water activist Erin Brockovich - last seen playing a waitress in her eponymous biopic starring Julia Roberts - is still battling contamination from hexavalent chromium, the carcinogen she discovered in Hinkley, Calif., in the 1990s. In "Last Call at the Oasis," Brockovich is - unbelievably - still fighting the exact same fight, this time in Midland, Tex., where she speaks to yet another "chrome six" community besieged by health problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency is broke, understaffed and dysfunctional, she announces. "I am telling you," Brockovich states flatly, "Superman is not coming."
From Texas's polluted wells to enormous cattle feeding lots in Michigan - where a heroic farmer named Lynn Henning risks harassment and threats to document their effect on her community's drinking water - and, finally, to the Jordan River itself, "Last Call at the Oasis" skillfully threads viewers through complicated scientific, environmental and geopolitical issues. Although the film features plenty of knowledgeable talking heads (much of the research is based on Alex Prud'homme's book "The Ripple Effect"), it derives its most effective drama from human stories.
Its most effective humor, too: In a canny move, Yu enlists Jack Black to help a California ad agency come up with a marketing campaign for drinking water that has been distilled from waste water, a strategy already in place in Singapore, Orange County and other localities.
The sequences featuring Black introduce a welcome, if slightly forced, note of levity to a situation that often seems paralyzingly dire. We can't conserve our way out of this, as one researcher notes. But "Last Call at the Oasis" is determined to see the glass as half-full, as it informs viewers in an endnote.
If the glass winds up empty, don't say we weren't warned.
Contains disturbing content and brief strong language.