Back in May, we here at ScienceBlogs got an offer to get an advance screener copy of Randy Olson’s new movie, “Sizzle”, if we promised to review it. I hadn’t seen any of Olson’s movies before, but I’ve been involved in a few discussions with him as part of the Great Framing Wars, and while I frequently disagree with him, he seemed to be a bright and interesting guy, so I was interesting in seeing what he’s been working on. So I signed up for the review, telling the people from the production company that I’d review it from the viewpoint of a mathy guy – expecting that it was really a science
movie, and knowing how badly a lot of popular science stuff really screws up the math. Little did I know what I was getting into….
After signing up for the review, his production company mailed me a DVD at the beginning of the month. The packaging makes it clear that what I saw is not the final version of the movie. The soundtrack, color balance, and editing are all likely to change before the real final cut of the movie, so what I saw is definitely a preliminary version.
Finally, last weekend, I sat down to watch it. I don’t think Randy is going to be terribly happy with this review, because I really didn’t like it.
From the title, you might think that it’s a movie about global warming. It’s definitely not that. At times, it wants to be a movie about the debate over global warming. But it doesn’t succeed at that. And at times, it wants to be a straightforward comedy. But it doesn’t even succeed at that. It does a dreadful job of balancing those different goals. It comes off as a mean-spirited, glib, pointless mess of a movie.
Instead of being a straightforward documentary, it sets itself up as a comedic meta-movie: that is, the movie follows Randy’s efforts to make a movie about the debate over global warming.
Randy sets himself up as a stereotypical scientist – boring, stodgy,
snotty, and unwilling to lower himself to the level of communicating with people
in a way that they’ll understand. There’s an awful sequence where Randy argues that
the movie needs to be done as a series of powerpoint slides, because that’s how scientists do things.
But he has trouble getting funding. So he winds up with the movie being bankrolled by an incredibly stupid (but wealthy) homosexual couple. The couple
is set up as an incredibly over-the-top stereotype of what gays are like – think “La Cage au Folles”. This leads to another really dreadful sequence where the funding guys pull the funds because one of them develops a skin rash, and they decide they’d rather fund a movie about skin rash. But then the skin rash turns out to just be a heat rash, and so they resume funding of the global warming movie.
The gay couple provide a cameraman and sound guy, who they met on the beach
the previous summer, when they were saved from being beaten up by a bunch of thugs. The camera and soundman are both black, and they’re also portrayed rather stereotypically.
Most of the movie is Randy traveling around with his film crew interviewing people,
followed by calling the gay couple to complain about the film crew. The cameraman is
supposed to be a climate skeptic, and constantly interrupts the interviews – either to
disagree with global warming experts, or to state his support for the supposed skeptics.
The cameraman is clearly intended to be a stand-in for the “typical american”, who
doesn’t really understand the science. His interrupts are almost always some of the
typical arguments used by clueless anti-GW types.
I think that the point of this is to try to contrast how the scientists talk to another scientist (Randy) versus how they talk to non-scientists (the cameraman). But
it’s all done so poorly – with Randy portraying a really idiotic scientist, and the cameraman playing a stereotypical uneducated working-class guy – that if that’s the point, it isn’t made effectively.
The comedy in the movie doesn’t work. I don’t think I actually laughed out loud a single time during the entire movie. I can’t think of a single joke that really worked.
The science content of the movie also doesn’t work. It’s poorly put together, poorly edited, so that the bits and pieces that contain interesting information are hard to follow and scrambled.
The framing content of the movie also doesn’t work. In so far as the movie has any real message, that message is about how ineffectual scientists are at communicating with the public – by contrasting their communication with other scientists and their communication with non-scientists. But it makes that point using a bundle of unrealistic contrived stereotypes so extreme that they come off as bad slapstick rather than any kind of actual critique of scientific communication.
It just doesn’t work on any level. It’s really a dreadful movie.
On a meta-level (which is appropriate given that this is a meta-movie), it demonstrates something else that I’ve said plenty of times in the past. The proponents of better framing in scientific communication are their own worst enemies. They do such a dreadful job of framing their framing argument that they undermine their own case. As I said above, the message of the movie is really about the problems with how scientists communicate with non-scientists. But the way that it’s set up and framed in the movie is so stupid, so contrived, and so bound up with cheap, offensive stereotypes that all that it accomplishes is making Randy look like a fool. No scientist is going to watch this movie, and walk away saying “Oh, that’s why I can’t make people understand…” They’re going to walk away saying “God, what an awful movie… If a movie like this
is the best the framing people can do at showing what’s wrong with how scientists communicate, then they really need to find someone else to make the point for them – because they’re doing a really lousy job of communicating.