Gleick’s valedictory serves as an apt summing-up to a film that first plunges viewers into panic, then brings them to the surface, convincing them that they can stem the tide of disaster if they act decisively and quickly.
Gleick’s guarded optimism, as well as “Last Call at the Oasis” itself, also epitomizes what has become the driving artistic ethos of Participant Media, the company that produced the film and that has been making socially conscious movies for almost a decade. Starting with its breakout hit, “An Inconvenient Truth,” in 2006 and with such successive films as “Food, Inc.” and “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” Participant has perfected a house style that, while verging on “Portlandia”-worthy earnestness, has come into its own as a cinematic rhetoric. There’s now such a thing as the classic Participant film — obeying specific, unalterable conventions — in which form is every bit as important as content.
Most if not all of those conventions were solidified in “An Inconvenient Truth,” which began with perhaps the most stultifying event one could imagine — Al Gore delivering a PowerPoint presentation on global warming — and became a bona fide phenomenon, luring millions of viewers to theaters and winning two Oscars.
With “An Inconvenient Truth,” Participant — which was founded in 2004 by former eBay executive Jeff Skoll — learned that even the driest subject matter could be enlivened in the hands of a skillful, sensitive filmmaker, in this case Davis Guggenheim. They learned that charts and graphs were worthless without emotion: Guggenheim wisely opened the film up to include intimate moments with Gore speaking emotionally about the loss of his sister and near death of his son. They learned to intercut bad news with lively graphics and well-placed jokes (“Hello, I’m Al Gore, and I used to be the next president of the United States”).
And they learned that even predictions as dire as an armageddon of floods, droughts and 100 million climate refugees could end on a high note. “An Inconvenient Truth” did so literally and figuratively, with a rousing Melissa Etheridge song and on-screen graphics urging filmgoers to take action by doing everything from buying low-energy light bulbs to driving hybrid cars.
“Last Call at the Oasis” hews faithfully to every one of those tropes, right down to the final credits, when R.E.M. delivers a version of “Walk It Back” and a message flashes on-screen inviting viewers to text “water” and visit the film’s Web site.
Directed with intelligence and style by Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu and filmed with stunning visual clarity by the revered documentarian Jon Else, “Last Call at the Oasis” threads viewers through a huge, intractable problem with lucidity and sweet logic. (We’re using too much water, not paying enough attention to what’s going into it and allowing irrational feelings to stop us from doing what’s needed to conserve and protect what we still have.)