If you've ever been trapped in a conversation with someone who's clearly intelligent, but has an unnerving obsession with lecturing you about the end of the world, you'll get a familiar feeling from watching Collapse. The documentary directed by Chris Smith is 80 minutes of Michael Ruppert sitting in a chair, smoking cigarettes and talking about the economy, energy policy, corrupt government interests, the mainstream media and the imminent end of the world as we know it (this is not an exaggeration). Putting aside the content of what he's saying, this documentary is ultimately disappointing because it does little to differentiate itself from the experience of seeing Ruppert simply sitting and giving a lecture.
The film is shot in a basement, with Ruppert the only clear thing in darkness. As he chain smokes cigarettes and tells the camera about everything from peak oil to the how he predicted the current financial crisis, we cut mostly to stock footage, hand-drawn graphs and old pictures. This is disappointing because Ruppert's theories beg for a more ambitious attempts at illustration than just some vaguely related images to watch while he expounds upon them.
Ruppert is an interesting subject for a documentary, just not this one. He's a former cop/CIA agent turned reporter/activist/conspiracy theorist. He claims to have been betrayed by an ex-girlfriend (also a CIA agent), harassed by the government for speaking out against the powers that be, and that he is a personal target of Dick Cheney. He also successfully predicted the current financial crisis based on his assertions that the mortgage-lending and credit sectors of the financial industry were unsustainable. Ruppert's monologue begins by going into a summary of the peak oil theory, which states that oil is a finite resource and we've reached the peak of its practical procurement. Once that peak is reached, oil gets harder and harder to find, process and use, and our extremely oil-dependent economy is headed for big trouble.
The way the film covers Ruppert's thoughts about peak oil are a good example of the problem with this documentary. He speaks with fiery passion and intelligence about sustainability, how much energy is wasted to make every product we use, and about the fact that we are headed for a big wake-up call. He highlights corporate interests behind the energy issues and paints a picture of oil's influence over U.S. foreign policy that – if possibly exaggerated – absolutely has truth to it. He makes an argument about peak oil that is compelling and convincing. However, everything Ruppert says has been written about, talked about and even had documentaries made about it elsewhere. And that's the problem with Collapse.
For compelling, frightening documentaries exploring peak oil, we have A Crude Awakening or The End of Suburbia. These films aren't perfect, but they explore the issues on a deeper level and bring in a bevy of speakers and viewpoints (Ruppert himself appears in the latter). They explain the concepts more clearly and have a (relatively) steady hand that makes it easier to accept the arguments as truth. Whereas Collapse is a single man talking for 80 minutes, these films reach a consensus and are stronger for it. So Collapse ultimately fails as a persuasive argument.
The film didn't have to be framed as an argument, though. Since it's focused on one person – and a controversial, interesting person at that – the filmmakers could have delved into questions about who this person is. As stated earlier, Ruppert's monologue has the passionate, uneven feel of a a crackpot, not always in what he says but how he says it. The way he chain smokes, his halting rhythm of speech, the tired, beaten down look on his face and his veiled condescension for the uninformed all make us doubt him even when he's saying something we know to be true. And in addition to his unnerving personal mannerisms, he veers into arguments at several points that stretch the limits of believability (about his past, the second Bush administration targeting him, vague references to the truth about 9/11, and more).
Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't take advantage of their subject or question what mix of prophet and paranoid he actually is. Throughout the film we long to be shown counterpoints to his theories, to hear other opinions on him, and to explore his history in a deeper way than him simply recounting it. Instead, director Chris Smith is content to merely record Ruppert talking and throw it on the screen. Smith can be heard asking questions at several points, but they only vaguely contest Ruppert's assertions. Ruppert's never truly challenged, and aside from one moment towards the end when he breaks down into tears, we get little insight as to who he is outside of his theories. That's a shame, because regardless of whether or not you're on board with his 80 minutes worth of proselytizing, he's absolutely an interesting character.
DVD Bonus Features
The main feature here is a selection of deleted scenes - really just sections of Ruppert's monologue that didn't make the final cut. He goes into a bit more depth on certain theories, touches on his views on spirituality, but doesn't say anything earth-shatteringly different than what's in the movie.
"Collapse" is on sale June 15, 2010 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Chris Smith. Starring Michael Ruppert.