Celebrities are keen on adopting righteous causes, but few are as vocal as Leonardo DiCaprio about his quest to save the planet from ecological collapse. "I am consumed by this," DiCaprio told Rolling Stone in a profile earlier this year. "There isn’t a couple of hours a day where I’m not thinking about it."
With Before the Flood, DiCaprio is asking us to sample a fraction of his daily burden. Directed by Fisher Stevens, Before the Flood documents DiCaprio as he jet-sets from Greenland to Indonesia to Miami and beyond, speaking to world leaders and, per the film’s liner notes, "bearing witness to climate change on a scale that no one should deny." In the vein of An Inconvenient Truth or DiCaprio’s own 2007 eco-doc The Eleventh Hour, Before the Flood is meant as a clarion call for viewers to stand up, take action, change the world, etc.
'Before the Flood' is meant as a clarion call for viewers to change the world
Global warming is an objectively urgent crisis facing our planet, so it's a special achievement that DiCaprio's film manages to evade that sense of urgency almost entirely. It certainly isn’t for lack of visual stimulation. If you like watching Leonardo DiCaprio do stuff, you’re in for a treat. Here’s just a partial list of stuff you can watch Leonardo DiCaprio do in this movie: tour the UN with Ban Ki-Moon, speak in front of the UN General Assembly (twice), ride in a snowmobile sled across a melting glacier in Greenland, listen to narwhals coo, push children on a swing on the Pacific Ocean island Palau, tour a washed-out onion field in India, fly over a smoldering Indonesian rainforest, chill with an elephant, gawk at robots inside Tesla’s Gigafactory with Elon Musk, awkwardly greet Secretary of State John Kerry, offer baby orangutans fruit, stroll the White House grounds with President Obama, and kiss the Pope’s hand and give him a book of Hieronymus Bosch paintings.
If that sounds like a lot of stuff to do in one documentary, you’re right. Which gets at Before the Flood's primary flaw: a 30,000-foot approach. Unlike well-honed environmental documentaries like Gasland and Blackfish that pick a subject and dig in, Before the Flood offers a smorgasbord of issues, breezing through subjects like strip mining, deforestation, rising oceans, tar sands, desertification, coral reef destruction, vanishing glaciers, and more to paint an overwhelmingly dire vision. Certainly these problems are interrelated, but by taking on so much the documentary breaks down complicated topics — each worthy of investigation! — into bite-sized, reductive takeaways: Solar energy? Good. Eating beef? Bad. Eating chicken? Better. Fossil fuels? Bad. Consuming less? Good! The film's message can be summed up in one sentence: the environment is fucked, and we should do something — anything — about it.
It's a worthy takeaway, but any viewer in 2016 who isn't already aware of most of the issues Before the Flood raises is either uninterested in the subject, or willfully in denial. And if they're in the latter camp, it's unlikely Before the Flood will change their mind.
Fossil fuels? Bad. Consuming less? Good!
The film is also hampered by a lack of rigor. As an investigation, DiCaprio’s grim — but action-packed! — world tour feels toothless. In a discussion that followed the film’s premiere screening, the actor was lauded for "actually calling out climate deniers by name. I so want to honor you for that," the moderator gushed. But the individuals DiCaprio calls out — namely the Koch brothers, Fox News anchors, and slew of right-wing congress members, are not bashful about where they stand. In fact, DiCaprio blows the one chance he has for a meaningful confrontation: on a helicopter tour over an oil sand field with an oil executive, DiCaprio fails to ask a single pertinent question. Instead he quips, "It looks like Mordor" to no one in particular. End of scene.
Am I asking too much of Before the Flood? Maybe. Ultimately, DiCaprio’s cause is admirable, and some of the shots were legitimately stunning. DiCaprio comes off as dilettantish, but well-intentioned. That said, there are better documentaries out there that cover much of the same material, in more rigorous, and interesting ways. You’ll just have to forego the adventures with Leo.
Before the Flood debuts October 31 on the National Geographic Channel.