'The Human Experiment': Film Review

The Human Experiment Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Area 23a

The Human Experiment Still - H 2015

Going green has never seemed more urgent  

Sean Penn narrates and executive produces this documentary warning about the harmful effects of our constant exposure to untested chemicals

It's hard to see a documentary these days without wanting to go home immediately afterward and curl up in a fetal position. That reaction is induced yet again in Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman's frightening examination of our constant exposure to untested chemicals that may be producing ill effects ranging from infertility to cancer to autism to just about every other malady you can think of.

Executive produced and narrated by Sean Penn —whose cold vocal fury signifies a desire to personally beat up every chemical company executive — The Human Experiment is more impassioned than it is illuminating. The film is being released both theatrically and on various digital platforms in conjunction with Earth Day.

Alternating between endless testimonials to the ill effects of chemicals by doctors, scientists, politicians and journalists, among others, with personal stories of individuals affected by various mysterious health problems, the film certainly makes a powerful case for stronger regulations. Despite the fact that many substances have previously proven to be harmful — lead, tobacco, asbestos and DDT, among many others — the country still lacks sufficient oversight laws. Essentially, as Penn's narration points out, "Like a defendant in an American courtroom, a chemical is innocent until proven guilty."

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Unfortunately, for all its dire warnings, the film is not particularly effective cinematically, proving dry and repetitive in its style. Nor is it sufficiently informative, with personal anecdotes often replacing the imparting of hard scientific information. While it's hard not to identify with such stories as those of the Latina maid who suffered skin rashes as a result of working with common household cleaning products, the environmental health organizer who lost her infant son to an intestinal disease, or the young couple struggling with infertility issues, the film prevents no solid evidence linking the problems to specific common chemicals.

And yet there seems little doubt of the correlation between the rising rates of cancer and other health issues with the increased use of insufficiently tested chemicals permeating our daily lives. The Human Experiment has certainly thrown a much-needed shot across the bow, but it also indicates that far more evidence is needed to produce real change.

Production: KTF Films
Narrator/executive producer: Sean Penn
Directors: Dana Nachman, Don Hardy Jr.
Screenwriter: Dana Nachman
Producers: Dana Nachman, Don Hardy Jr., Chelsea Matter
Director of photography/editor: Don Hardy Jr.
Composer: Scott Hardkiss

Not rated, 91 minutes