There are plenty of scientific talking heads with Gleick’s expertise, but Yu makes sure to leaven their warnings with compelling personal stories and charismatic characters, among them the real-life Erin Brockovich, who holds a barnburner of a public meeting in a Texas community where the water wells have been contaminated. Who wouldn’t tremble in vicarious outrage as Brockovich inveighs against a scandalously ineffective EPA. (“Superman is not coming,” she flatly says at one point.) Who won’t choke up at the sight of an Australian farm couple auctioning off their beloved cattle in the face of a decade-long drought?
“Last Call at the Oasis” even has the requisite humor, here by way of Jack Black, who gamely agrees to act as spokesman for an imaginary company that has bottled recycled waste water under the marketing moniker “Porcelain Springs.”
With its superb production values, clear arguments and ineffable combination of whimsy and drama, “Last Call at the Oasis” exemplifies what Participant CEO Jim Berk once described as the company’s chief mission to create “an emotional experience” that transcends the problem being diagnosed. “We want to make sure we create a moment where people believe there’s hope.”
The danger of that strategy, of course, is that their films will preach only to the choir. The flip side of their righteous indignation and idealism is that they will simply flatter the sensibilities of their audiences, soothing them with false optimism. Viewers may get the sense at the end of “Last Call at the Oasis” that they’ve done the noble thing just by watching the movie. With Michael Stipe somberly intoning in the background, the on-screen message to text “water” to a designated number seems almost painfully simplistic, the ultimate cliche of bourgeois art-house liberalism.
Still, if Participant productions seem reductively slick and uplifting, consider for a moment the advertising and lobbying power of Big Oil, Big Ag and other corporate interests they often criticize. If Skoll can’t claim that the problems described in his films have been solved, they have arguably changed those conversations forever — and helped fill an important informational hole left by waning investigative journalism organizations.
What’s more, they’ve done it by developing their own genre, now as recognizable and trusted by its constituents as anything from Pixar and Marvel. Better than any movie company in Hollywood, Participant has aestheticized, packaged and marketed a finely calibrated mixture of umbrage and cockeyed idealism. By marshaling not just facts but sound, image and narrative arc, it’s figured out how to capture the stubborn belief that the more we know, the more likely we are to do the right things.
Last Call at the Oasis
(105 minutes, at Landmark’s E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for some disturbing content and brief, strong profanity.