Deforestation and oligarchies are bad things. Saving the planet and wresting control of the economy from the super-rich are good things. Sigh. That’s the gist of the dry, interminable documentary Surviving Progress, in which writers-directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’ argue that humankind’s worst enemy is its big brain—and said brain’s desire for better, faster, and more.
Ironically, it’s the film’s desire for more that makes it such a haul. Surviving Progress, “inspired” by the book A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, tackles far too many subjects to comprehend any of them. Wright is one of the film’s endless talking heads, which span academics and unknowns and scientific celebs like Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, and novelist Margaret Atwood. (Oh right: She wrote a nonfiction book called Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.)
The doc begins and ends with footage of chimps playing with blocks. This how the directors connect to the difference between human and primate intelligence—primates may learn the how of things, such as standing blocks upright, but they never ask the why—and although the topic of “Why?” gets an entire chapter here, it’s largely gibberish. There’s a segment about a Chinese tour guide—??—who at one point is interviewed with his elderly father, a professor. When his father starts talking about the world economy, the son gets irate. “What you’re doing is hurting me. Do you understand?” he asks. “No, I don’t,” dad responds. Neither do we.
There’s also talk of reducing one’s environmental footprint, including ever-so-brief commentary from Colin Beavan, a New Yorker who decided to take on what he called a “no impact” project (which warranted its own, superior film, No Impact Man). The Congo’s debt, somehow related to 6 million dead, is mentioned. A scientist named J. Craig Venter is interviewed on television, with the show’s host asking, “What is harder—mapping the entire genome set that makes up the human being, or making algae produce energy?” From subject to subject the filmmakers skip, rarely resting on one for enough time to offer solutions or even let viewers absorb the information.
Animated segments are sometimes eye-rollingly literal interpretations of what’s just been said: For example, the film follows footage of President Ronald Reagan at the New York Stock Exchange saying, “We’re going to turn the bull loose” with a scene of a bull at a rodeo. Really? Surviving Progress is at once overly simplistic and overly complicated. Considering the film ultimately preaches a sort of catch-all moderation, it should have taken its own advice.