Review: Metamorphosis

by Andrew Parker

Metamorphosis is an ecological advocacy documentary with a uniquely psychological approach. Canadian documentarian Velcrow Ripper and his wife and co-director Nova Ami take a look at how climate change has had catastrophic effects around the world and a handful of people who are looking to save us from a potentially apocalyptic fate. In terms of the ecological angle behind Metamorphosis, there’s not much of anything new to offer or talk about. From an artistic aspect, it’s gorgeous looking, but overall unexceptional. But the psychology behind Metamorphosis is very interesting. Unfortunately, when one thinks about how a film is working on a psychological level rather than and artistic or narrative level, something always feels a bit off.

Unless you’re still in denial that climate change is a real problem (and if you believe that you can stop right here and read something else), I don’t need to tell you how bad things are getting. Ami and Ripper travel the world showing us how badly our environment has deteriorated. High water levels in Venice leave streets flooded sometimes several days a week, with the city’s population cut virtually in half over the past forty years as a result. Cyclone Pam devastated and destroyed 70% of the homes on the island of Vanuatu. The Sierra snowpack that provided most of the clean water for Southern California has all but dried up. Forest fires wipe out entire communities. Migrating wildlife have fewer and fewer safe places to go thanks to late springs and early winters. The aquatic ecosystems of the Caribbean are dying off thanks to the heightened acidity of the water. Things are terrible all over, and Velcrow and Nova spend a great deal of Metamorphosis talking to those either witnessing climate change or are victims of its wrath.

With so many ecological documentaries out there on the subjects of climate change, anti-pollution activism, and the sociological impacts of extreme weather on the human race, one has to ask if Metamorphosis is doing anything new or revolutionary from such a well worn point of view, and the answer is sadly no. The cinematography is stunning, incorporating plenty of drone shots and gorgeous panoramic views, but no one ever set out to make an ugly looking eco-doc because it would entirely defeat the purpose of making a film in the natural world. There are some artful, interpretive moments scattered throughout, but they similarly add little outside of a slight performative element.

The tragic stories relayed within Metamorphosis are delivered with heavy hearts and a great deal of empathy from Ami and Ripper, with the filmmakers allowing their interview subjects to narrate their experiences in the own words instead of giving them leading questions. That’s a nice way to handle the misfortunes of others, especially those who never openly courted such ecological setbacks and disasters in the first place. Every stop of Ripper and Ami’s tour of ecological collapse comes with its own specific tour guide, which keeps things fresher than having a bunch of scholarly talking heads interrupting and discussing the same tragedies. And yet, there’s still nothing all that particularly new or novel in this approach. It never amounts to much more than a list of some bad things that have happened in a world where bad things happen all the time.

But the psychology of Ripper and Ami’s approach is sound. Metamorphosis is a film that deliberately wants to strike subtle amounts of fear into the audience. Again, such a fearful overall approach from directors of ecological documentaries is nothing new, but Ripper and Ami are very up front about how they’re making the viewer feel. They admit that they want us to get angry, anxious, sad, and fearful because they want Metamorphosis to function as a way to get in touch with those feelings. One can’t fully get over the fear or anxiety of a dying planet without first acknowledging those off-putting feelings. In order to get over a problem, you first have to admit that there’s a problem. After showing in no uncertain terms said problems, Metamorphosis starts transitioning around the halfway point into a film about people who have faced the fear head-on and started coming up with solutions to their problems: turning abandoned desert swimming pools into gardens, planting milkweed for butterflies, implementing low cost solar power for those in great need.

The design of the film on a psychological level is a better reflection of the film’s title than the half baked, metaphorically obvious throughline about monarch butterflies. True change is only achievable once old methods of thinking and antiquated ideas are broken down and something new is created from anything that’s somehow left over. Metamorphosis breaks down the viewer in a bid to build them back up, with hopes that they’ll go out into the world and do the same. In this respect, I hope Ripper and Ami are successful in shaking some people up, but something tells me that the otherwise stock approach employed here will end up in just another ecological advocacy film that’s aimed straight at those who already know climate change is a problem worth fearing, not one that will reach the audiences that it needs to shake from complacency.

Metamorphosis screens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Thursday, June 7 and Friday, June 8 as part of their Films Changing the World series. It opens formally in Toronto at Carlton Cinemas on June 8 and Calgary at Globe Cinema on June 20. It screens at Metro Cinema in Edmonton on June 22 & 23, in Victoria at Cinecenta on June 24 & 25, and at Vancity in Vancouver June 26-28.

Check out the trailer for Metamorphosis:

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