'2040': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
A surprisingly sunny vision of climate change.

Actor, director and campaigner Damon Gameau argues that scientific progress can save the planet from ecological disaster in his new documentary.

Australian actor turned documentary director Damon Gameau made a modest international splash with his 2014 debut That Sugar Film, a warning about the malign effects of hidden sugars in supposedly healthy foods. Using his own body as a laboratory, Gameau's playfully shot nutritional TED talk set new domestic box office records for an Australian-made documentary. World premiering this week in the Berlinale's teen-focused Generation Kplus strand, Gameau's new film 2040 uses a similar blend of pop science and zippy presentation to address climate change. Having effectively remade Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, he now puts his personal spin on Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

But in fairness, 2040 has a more original twist than most climate-panic documentaries. Using visual effects to imagine a utopian future world saved from disaster by scientific progress, Gameau presents a surprisingly sunny, hopeful, counter-intuitive alternative to the usual doomy warnings of impending apocalypse. Framing the film as a letter to his 4-year-old daughter Zoe, who will be 25 in 2040, the director limits himself to only covering existing technological advances in the doc. He describes this approach as “an experiment in fact-based dreaming.”

Backed by a wider online educational campaign, 2040 will have obvious appeal to school-age viewers, but it also has enough newsworthy hooks and genial comic energy to reach a general audience. Gameau's relentlessly cheery screen persona may grate with grouchy old cynics like me, but his noble motives and positive vibes are hard to fault.

Among the eco-friendly scientific developments that Gameau examines here are electric self-driving cars in Singapore, a decentralized solar electricity grid in Bangladesh and a potentially revolutionary marine permaculture system off the U.S. East Coast which uses seaweed to counter ocean acidification while capturing carbon from the atmosphere above. There are encouraging and informative lessons here, even if the technology is mostly in its infancy.

But some of Gameau's choices feel more like flimsy gimmicks, like a school “dashboard” system designed to measure personal carbon use. Another of his manifesto points, about the urgent need to educate more girls globally, is unquestionably a serious issue, but it feels only marginally related to the doc's climate-change agenda. These clumsy inclusions give the unfortunate impression that the filmmakers ran out of stronger, more relevant examples.

Building on the colorful, irreverent, fast-moving style of That Sugar Film, Gameau punctuates his serious points with comic vignettes, in this case playing himself as a middle-aged dad 20 years from now, cheerfully embarrassing his 25-year-old daughter. He also includes bite-sized interviews with preteen children from across the globe, who share their bright hopes for the future, which are inevitably slight but mostly charming. A background chorus of expert talking heads, including anthropology professor Geraldine Bell and economist Dr Kate Raworth, add weight to Gameau's arguments with their insights.

The science behind 2040 is presented in a zippy, glib, cartoonish manner that specialist viewers could doubtless pick to pieces, as some did with That Sugar Film. Gameau also underplays the huge shifts required in the current political and economic landscape, and arguably in the entire capitalist system, to bring many of these technological fixes to fruition. In fairness, he makes a fleeting point about the shadowy industry of professional climate-change deniers who are opaquely funded by Big Oil, but he generally falls back on vague hopes that “new leaders emerge” to overhaul the current status quo. He may be waiting some time.

Gameau has an irritating fondness for facile New Age-tinged platitudes about the bright green future, reinforced by a sparkly feel-good score and recurring fantasy tableaux of Earth in 2040 as a kind of classless post-racial paradise of endless sunshine and leisure. But perhaps his earnest, wide-eyed tone will strike an inspirational chord with his adolescent target audience. In any case, 2040 is an entertaining and uplifting package overall, and clearly made with good intentions.

Production company: Good Thing Productions
Cast: Damon Gameau, Eva Lazarro, Zoe Gameau
Director-screenwriter: Damon Gameau
Producers: Nick Batzias, Anna Kaplan, Virginia Whitwell, Damon Gameau
Cinematographer: Hugh Miller
Editor: Jane Usher
Music: Bryony Marks
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation Kplus)
Sales: Madman Entertainment, Melbourne

92 minutes