75-year-old Japanese-Canadian hippie David Suzuki is, among other things, a respected scientist and environmental lecturer. If you care to look into him, you’ll find he’s very famous among the subculture of folks who idolize environmental lecturers. Among the rest of us, though, his reputation does not precede him, even if this movie about him assumes that it does. Outside of that subculture, he’s about as interesting as the next quirky scientist (or politician) using his time in the spotlight to plea for environmental sanity. Force of Nature is an adoring portrait of him, informative up to a point, that structures a series of anecdotes from his life around a pseudo-spiritual lecture he gives to a packed auditorium in Vancouver, BC.
If that structural conceit reminds you of An Inconvenient Truth, that’s because Force of Nature renders the comparison unavoidable. Although the documentary as a whole seems blissfully unaware that it has remade Suzuki in the mold of Al Gore — in fact, it tacitly positions Suzuki as a kind of Gore-made-better — it actually provides a much less compelling environmental argument than Gore’s movie. Which is hard to believe, given that Suzuki is a tried-and-true scientist with a life’s worth of lab work under his belt, and Gore is a professional politician. The fault must lie with the filmmakers, not the personalities.
Icelandic director Sturla Gunnarrson mixes in quite a bit of stock footage of Suzuki working with microscopes while wearing a lab coat, so it’s reasonable to assume his scientific accomplishments are great. It’s just that no actual science is used to justify the return to the nature roots Suzuki prescribes in the lecture and that Gunnarrson uses to anchor the film. What’s offered instead are patchily edited snippets of Suzuki ambling through Vancouver and Tokyo, talking to the camera about himself. We learn that he’s Japanese but was born in Canada and was placed in an internment camp during WWII; that he developed as a thinker during the radical 60s and became a hippie-science-crusader; and that he’s dedicated to making scientific fact understandable to the masses. On this last point, the movie satisfies itself by allowing Suzuki to make striking analogies between rising pollution levels and the bond we share with such people as Joan of Arc and Jesus because of the air molecules we’ve all breathed. That isn’t any more convincing when Suzuki states it with awestruck sincerity to his rapt crowd. To say that a politician has done this trick better than a real man of science seems like the kind of cynicism usually practiced by climate change deniers, but nevertheless, it’s a fact: one has.