'Living in the Future's Past': Film Review

Pretty and serious-minded, but bites off more than it can chew.
10/5/2018

Jeff Bridges produces and narrates a big-picture doc about where humanity is headed.

A tour through a slew of the biggest problems facing humanity led by gravel-voiced narrator/producer Jeff Bridges, Susan Kucera's Living in the Future's Past occasionally cuts to shots of the actor standing on a mountain, wind whipping at his clothes and shaggy hair as he gazes out at creation. A skeptical viewer might suggest the tagline, "The Dude gets serious."

Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to react dismissively to this earnest film, which speaks to so many very smart, very thoughtful people it can hardly find room to let any of them talk for long. Some big themes do coalesce after a while, and a patient viewer might find himself with a new perspective or two on certain facets of modern life. But on the whole, this is stuff documentary viewers have been confronting for a very long time, glossed-up and edited for viewers with ADHD.

Ten minutes in, the film still feels like it's in that mode so many docs employ to get your attention before they put the title on screen: Throw as many talking heads onscreen, give each just enough time to say a sentence or so, and drape remaining audio over footage of glaciers and wolves and the like. The pace of the interview editing will eventually slow down (a bit), but that onslaught of beautifully photographed nature footage continues. Sometimes the images resonate in an obvious way with what someone's saying; sometimes the connection is elliptical or arguably non-existent. More important in cinematic terms, the volume of images is numbing and unnecessary. Surely, anybody in the market for another eco-doc has the attention span to watch a scientist or anthropologist talk without this many cutaway shots.

The film is strongest in its unified-field-like discussion of energy — it doesn't just talk about the world running out of oil, it tries to convey mankind's long relationship with all kinds of energy gathering and use. Our ancestors, we're told, spent 90 percent of their time harvesting energy (food) just to stay alive; it wasn't until agriculture and the domestication of animals that we were able to build up surplus stores of that energy, leading after many centuries to a world in which (if we view all wealth as an abstraction of energy) some people have not enough to survive and some have vastly more than they could ever use.

And having surpluses allows us to fritter energy away without thinking of the consequences. One speaker says that we use 10 to 12 calories of fossil-fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy we produce. We're always using energy to make energy, and the variety we rely on the most isn't going to last us long.

Kucera and Bridges might say that all their interviewees are speaking to a single overarching issue, but it won't feel that way to many in the audience. In one scene, speakers describe conspicuous consumption of luxury goods in terms of peacocks and other animals competing for mates. But within 60 seconds, we're talking about the environmental scourge of plastic shopping bags, and a minute or so later, we're on to group identity and the way populations can fall under the sway of ideologues. Every now and then, Bridges will drop into the soundtrack with what feels like a summary of what we just heard, but isn't always. The filmmakers' good intentions are palpable throughout, but Living in the Future's Past mostly drowns in them.

Production company: Rangeland
Distributor: Vision Films
Director-director of photography-editor: Susan Kucera
Producers: Jeff Bridges, Susan Kucera
Executive producers: James Swift
Composers: Keefus Ciancia, Bob Holroyd

83 minutes